Human Performance Issues: Why They Arise and Tools to Manage Them


One of the human’s great strengths is its adaptability. This endows us with resilience in changing situations or circumstances never before experienced. However, this same adaptability can be unpredictable, leading to uncertainty of outcomes and ultimately risk.

What are human performance issues?

In our previous article we explored the main principles of human performance and how understanding it can lead to improvements in systems and procedures. Human performance issues are an important area of consideration for an employer as they can lead to accidents, injuries, and safety concerns.

However, these issues vary significantly between different settings, including healthcare, business, and high-risk industries such as nuclear energy or space exploration. Each environment poses unique demands and challenges so although there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are many commonalities when it comes to identifying and resolving issues.

Human performance issues have many sources, and their impact can vary depending on the specific context and task. They include individual factors such as fatigue, stress, skill level and resilience, as well as environmental factors including workplace culture, equipment and workload. Task-specific factors also play an important part, such as time constraints, repetitiveness and whether it is complex or novel requiring adaptation.

Almost all accidents involving substances hazardous to health are reported to have human performance failure as a contributing factor, so learning how to manage these issues is crucial to help prevent errors occurring.

Human performance issues in healthcare

Healthcare human performance issues can have serious consequences, as errors can lead to patient harm or even death. Healthcare providers face a number of factors which can lead to performance issues, so it is important to address the issues as best as possible.

Working long hours and dealing with emotionally demanding situations can lead to fatigue, stress, and burnout. As well as this, poor communication or not having the necessary knowledge or skills to perform specific procedures can potentially cause harm to patients.

As a leading healthcare management consultancy, we have helped both NHS and private sector clients address human performance issues and drive quality improvement. Through independent investigation, training and benchmarking processes against best practice, we are able to make recommendations on addressing governance issues which can impact human performance.


Human performance issues in the workplace

In the workplace, human performance issues are typically less severe than in healthcare but can also have significant consequences. Some of the key factors that contribute to human performance issues in business include mistakes in data entry, reports, or presentations which can lead to financial losses or damage to a company’s reputation.

Absenteeism can disrupt workflow, increase the workload of other employees, and lead to lost productivity. While conflict with colleagues can create a negative and unproductive work environment, and can even lead to lawsuits or other legal actions.

An experienced workplace investigations company Verita can help investigate serious issues arising from poor human performance impartially and fairly, and provide a comprehensive report that sets out evidence, findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Human performance issues in high risk industries

Human performance issues in high-risk industries, such as space exploration, aviation, or nuclear power can have catastrophic consequences. There are several parallels which can be drawn with healthcare, such as high-pressure situations leading to decision-making errors, workers not having the necessary training or experience to handle certain tasks, or complex and unfamiliar environments which can make it difficult for workers to perform their job effectively.

How does training help to manage human performance issues?

Training courses can help raise awareness of the causes of human performance issues to help address cognitive biases, limitations in attention, and memory, which can contribute to errors. They can also equip individuals with tools and strategies to manage stress, improve focus, and enhance vigilance to maintain optimal performance even in challenging situations.

Verita’s Human Performance Training courses help attendees understand the balance between resilience and risk that comes with our adaptability. Training is a valuable human performance tool, helping organisations to understand how and why people do what they do in order to make successful, safe outcomes more likely.

It is important to note that human performance is a dynamic process, and training should be seen as a continuous endeavour. Regular assessments, feedback mechanisms, and ongoing training opportunities can help individuals maintain and improve their performance over time.


Human performance tools to help employers

Human performance issues should be addressed in a proactive and comprehensive manner, allowing organisations to reduce the risk of accidents, injuries, and errors, and improve overall safety and productivity. There are a number of tools which can be employed by organisations to address human performance issues, such as:

  • Effective hiring and selection ensures candidates are well-suited for the job by screening for the right skills, knowledge, and personality traits.
  • Providing employees with ongoing training and development opportunities keeps them up-to-date on the latest practices and technologies.
  • Managing performance by setting clear expectations, providing regular feedback, and taking corrective action when necessary.
  • Creating a positive and supportive workplace environment encourages a culture that values safety, accountability, and respect.

Effects of Cognitive Dissonance on Human Performance

As I mentioned previously, there are some similarities between healthcare and aviation, not only in terms of the causes of human performance issues but in the severity of their impact. I should make it clear that I am not a psychologist nor in the truest sense of the word am I a scientist, although as an aviator I have a broad understanding of a lot of science.

My knowledge of cognitive dissonance, in particular, comes from extensive research into why pilots were flying approaches to land – the ‘approach’ being the last part of the flight descending towards the runway – when all of the available evidence indicated that the landing could not be achieved either safely or in compliance with operating procedures.

The approach trajectory was either too steep or too shallow, the aircraft was too fast or too slow or the landing gear and flaps were not in the correct configuration. Pilots’ standard operating procedures required them to execute a ‘go-around’ in such circumstances, to abandon the approach, climb away safely and start again but some were simply not complying. This ‘unstable approach’ phenomenon as it is known, has been one of the most common contributory factors in commercial aviation accidents over the last 30 years or more but the tendency to press on in spite of the evidence is not unique to pilots.

Human Performance and the Zeigarnik Effect

This brought me to the work of Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist and psychiatrist born in Lithuania at the turn of the last century. She is probably best known for studies inspired by her Professor’s observation that a waiter appeared to have a much better recollection for orders that had yet to be paid for, than those which had already been settled.

The waiter’s workflow involved taking the order, delivering the food and drinks and finally taking the money, at which point the workflow would be finished. He stored the order in his memory until the customer had paid and then subconsciously dumped it. In other words, an incomplete pattern of work held a much higher priority for retention in the memory than one which was effectively completed.

Zeigarnik went on to study school children learning in class and found that those who were interrupted in the course of their work remembered more, and more accurately than those who were allowed to finish without interruption.

In isolation that is interesting but doesn’t tell us a great deal. However, Zeigarnik and her successors have shown that the increased memory retention is attributable to a heightened level of cognitive arousal whilst a task is being conducted, which is replaced by a more satisfied lower arousal once the task is successfully completed. The heightened cognitive arousal was in turn attributed to a degree of discomfort that the goal may fail, discomfort that could only be assuaged by success.

Nowadays we know this as the ‘Zeigarnik Effect’. To take it one step further, research suggested that humans remember bad things more clearly than they remember the good things; perhaps from a survival perspective this makes sense – we remember what has done us harm so that we can avoid it in future.

So finally, the outcome of this ‘cognitive dissonance’, the disparity between aspiration and reality during the conduct of a task, is that we humans harbour a compelling desire to complete a task once we have commenced it. This can be so compelling that we may press on although all of the indications, our instincts and maybe even our own colleagues are telling us to stop and rethink the strategy.

This is what we found when the ‘unstable approaches’ continued to landing – pilots had become so focused on achieving the goal that they were able to ignore the evidence that it was failing – and it probably applies to many other aspects of professional and personal life.

In Summary

Human performance issues should be thought of as features rather than bugs in the system. They are reminders that we are not robots churning out flawless output. But by understanding the unique demands and challenges of each setting, organisations can develop effective strategies to prevent and mitigate human performance issues.

Human performance is a complex dance of individual strengths and weaknesses, causing issues which vary significantly between different settings, and require tailored approaches to address. Even with the best training and understanding, performance issues will still happen – we are only human, after all. But when we embrace these tools, we can stop seeing errors as inevitable flaws and start viewing them as opportunities for growth and improvement.


Our Human Performance training courses explain in simple terms how our capability channels function and equally how they can be hampered and inhibited. If you would like to know more about why human performance issues arise and the tools which organisations can use to manage them, please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


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