Understanding human performance


First let’s clear up the difference between human factors and human performance. Human performance is all about how and why people do what they do. Human factors is the science which applies what we know about that ‘how and why’ to the design of machines, equipment, work environments, procedures and anything else involving human interaction.

There are three critical factors which shape our performance. Motivation, capability and limitations. Different people may approach the same task with very different motivations – it may be money or praise or personal satisfaction, or a combination of these and others. It is important to know, to the extent it is possible, what is motivating an individual, because if for some reason that particular input is withdrawn, the motivation may simply cease and the task be abandoned. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs gives some insight into the spectrum of desires, and hence motivations, we humans share. There is plenty about Maslow on the internet if you want more detail.

The next performance factor is capability. If, for example, we were motivated to swim across a river, the ability to swim would be an essential capability if we are to succeed. Therefore, when assigning someone to a task, no matter how keen and motivated they may be, we must be sure they possess the requisite capabilities. Humans really only have access to two capability channels. One is cognitive, requiring active thought, while the other is learned from repetition, failure and practice. Mental calculation is a cognitive process for example, whereas standing up or driving a car are largely learned.

Sadly, both human capability channels have vulnerabilities and can fail us suddenly and unpredictably. These limitations can impact otherwise sound capabilities and significantly hamper performance. Cognitive thought can be prone to distraction, complacency or overload, whereas learned capabilities can be eroded by lack of practice or mis-applied in an unfamiliar environment.

So, understanding how well we should expect humans to perform requires that we first understand their motivations, their cognitive and learned capabilities and finally what limitations they might encounter.


Verita has been running a programme of workshops and training in human performance in the healthcare sector since 2017. If you would like to know more about our human performance training, book a free consultation or email [email protected].

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