What Human Factors isn’t: 2. Courtesy and Civility at Work

‘Human Factors’ (or Ergonomics) is often presented as something that it’s not, or as something that is only a small part of the whole. Rather than just explain what Human Factors is, in this sporadic series of short posts I will explain what it isn’t. The posts outline a number of myths, misunderstandings, and false equivalencies.

In this series:

  1. What Human Factors Isn’t: 1. Common Sense
  2. What Human Factors isn’t: 2. Courtesy and Civility at Work
  3. What Human Factors isn’t: 3. Off-the-shelf Behaviour Modification Training
  4. What Human Factors isn’t: 4. A cause of accidents
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Human Factors Isn’t Courtesy and Civility at Work

Some myths about Human Factors are just plain wrong, such as the common sense myth. Others are more subtly wrong. One of these is the false equivalence of ‘Human Factors’ with ‘good behaviour at work’. Courtesy and civility and are fundamental human values, expressed differently in different cultures, and as such may be seen as ‘factors of humans‘ in the vernacular sense. They are themes that are increasingly common in healthcare in particular. These are undoubtably important aspects of life, including work-life. Research reported in healthcare journals has shown that rudeness has adverse consequences on the diagnostic and procedural performance of clinical team members, staff satisfaction and retention, among other outcomes. It is the focus of campaigns such as Civility Saves Lives. Reseach on social media indicates that incivility is a growing problem: it seems to be perceived as the norm of online interaction, rather than the exception. So courtesy and civility may also be seen as specific ‘factors affecting humans‘, and important aspects of professionalism, in a work context.

But to equate these values with Human Factors as a discipline or field of study (and practice) is erroneous. The terms rarely come up in the Human Factors and Ergonomics literature. I was unable to find either in the title, keywords or abstracts of any article published in ‘Human Factors’, ‘Ergonomics’ or ‘Applied Ergonomics’ – the top three journals in the discipline. Nor are the terms listed in any indices of Human Factors textbooks (at least the ones that I have). Human Factors practitioners are unlikely to have specific expertise the topic, though those working in healthcare may well be aware of some of the related healthcare literature. They would probably see these topics as a better fit with other disciplines.

So this wouldn’t be a surprise researchers and practitioners of Human Factors, since the terms seem not to fit the scope of Human Factors:

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

Practitioners of ergonomics and ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.

International Ergonomics Association (2019)

Courtesy and civility are critically important, and crop up in disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, organisational behaviour and human resources management, as well as professional studies, interdisciplinary studies and healthcare in particular. But an association with the term ‘Human Factors’ is unhelpful. First, it reduces the essential focus of Human Factors on design (of work), though one might argue that courteous and civil interactions can be designed and reinforced, for instance through teamwork training. (That being the case, courtesy and civility are aspects of a specific application of Human Factors, but should not be equated with the term.) Second, the terms distort the focus of Human Factors on ‘fitting the task to the person’. Third, a false equivalence with Human Factors may reinforce the myth that Human Factors is (or that human factors are) ‘common sense’; most people would understand their importance, and how to be courteous and civil in every day life, even if these behaviours lapse from time to time.

Courtesy and civility should be an important topic for social dialogue in all aspects of life. They are also important aspects of training – fitting the person to the job. But we should be careful in overemphasising courtesy and civility in conversations about ‘Human Factors’. The false equivalence of courtesy and civility with Human Factors risks diluting its scope to ‘everything human’ – all humanities – along with its essential focus on designing for system performance and human wellbeing.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems, and Honorary Clinical Tutor at the University of Edinburgh. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.