Unlocking Your Potential: Mastering the 5 Principles of Human Performance – Part 3

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 018

Mar 15, 2023

In this episode we continue our discussion on The 5 Principles of Human Performance

So far, we have covered the first three Principles of Human Performance:

  1. Error is normal
  2. Blame fixes nothing
  3. Learning and improving is vital

This week,
we continue with principles 4 and 5 of The 5 Principles of Human Performance.

So if you missed Episode 016 or Episode 017, we invite you to return and listen to them.

The 4th Principle of Human Performance - Context influences behaviour, and systems drive outcomes

So when you think about systems, everything you do, every aspect of your life, is driven by some system, whether natural or engineered by humans. Take a look at something you do regularly - the supermarket (grocery store) or airport as examples. 

These places are systems driven, designed to make you do things differently by driving your behaviour.

You go to the supermarket (grocery store) for milk, which is located at the back of the store. Why? Because they are driving you on a journey to get there so that you see other things you didn't come in for but will buy, not knowing you even needed them.

If you think about your systems in the workplace, how many are in place that drive the way people do things? So whether it's safety rules or how you communicate, all of these are driven by different systems. Much of safety culture is actually about systems thinking.

In the book The 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin, where these five principles of human performance come from, he has a quote that says, 

'bad outcomes are from weak and brittle systems, not weak and brittle people.' 

That statement could sting a little; some people will ask: 'what do you mean, we're not brittle? That's not brittle'. But the reality is, especially if you’ve created something great or think you have, it can be hard to get the feedback you need to improve the system and make it better. 

This is a perfect opportunity for continuous improvement - you become open to feedback by letting go of your ego. So part of the system's driving outcome is asking how you build in the feedback mechanism that's often missing. 

Just because something worked in the past doesn't mean it will work in the future.

How hard is it to get feedback that the system or process you designed could be more helpful, useful, or solve the problem you thought it would solve?

Below is a summarised story shared by Nuala of one of her experiences pertaining to feedback (do listen to the full story for all the detail):

So I was working with our client who needed help developing a new process to reduce safety risks and improve the flow of work. As a safety coach, I observed the environment and wrote step-by-step instructions for the operation.

But when I asked for feedback from key people, the responses were vague. I needed more robust feedback, so I printed out the process and left a copy on a senior manager's desk one night.

The next day, I discovered the process had been marked with a big red "F" in bold letters. I was surprised at first, but then I realised this was excellent feedback. The senior manager had pointed out that the process would fail if implemented, which meant it would not be helpful.

So I worked with the senior manager to rework the process and create something that made more sense. The final process was far more valuable than the initial one, thanks to the candid feedback provided by him. 

This experience taught me the importance of having well-designed systems and processes in the workplace and how candid feedback can help improve them. I also learned that sometimes, feedback can be harsh, but it can lead to significant improvements in the long run.

Instead of trying to build systems for perfection, we need to build in manoeuvrability and ensure we continuously receive feedback on whether something is not working, needs to be changed or if we have some unwritten rules that are not actually in the process.

So how do we update and adapt?

It would help to learn how to give feedback as it is part of the improvement process. And we recognised in that story that it might not have been perfect feedback, but it was helpful. 

And often, if you think, Oh, I don't want to upset this person, I don't want to say this, or I don't want to do that, then it becomes unhelpful feedback - which leads us back to Principle 3 of Human Performance around learning and improving is vital, and learning is deliberate.

All these principles are linked; you can't have one without the other. So you need to look at your systems and ask what you can learn, what is useful and what is not. 

How do you improve and deliberately go out there and make it better without continuing to do the same thing, in the same way, expecting a different result? 

You may be asking what this has to do with systems … 

The procedure eventually had to be redesigned for individuals to obtain the information more easily, whereas initially, it was just a long story.  This is the process, yet not every element of that process is applied to everyone in the procedure.

When building systems, you need to receive candid feedback on how to improve that system.

In case you don't know what ChatGPT is, it's an AI-based platform that helps us answer questions, amongst other things.

We thought we would have a little bit of fun with this and ask it to come up with a summary of the 4th principle of human performance, and here's the short version of what it said:

Understanding the context

  • Consider the various elements of the context
  • Social norms, cultural values, past experiences, and current environment

Systematic thinking

  • Systems drive outcomes through patterns of behaviour and decision-making
  • Example: Safety policies and procedures drive employee behaviour

Recognising power dynamics

  • Systems are often designed and maintained by those in positions of power
  • Can reinforce existing inequalities and biases
  • Awareness of these dynamics is important for shaping behaviour and outcomes

The impact of incentives

  • Incentives within a system can strongly influence behaviour
  • Example: Salesperson motivated to sell more with commission tied to performance

Reflection and critique

  • Continuously reflect and critique systems to identify biases and limitations
  • This can lead to ongoing improvement and better outcomes for all.

The 5th Principle of Human Performance: How you respond to failure matters; how leaders act and respond counts

Asking for feedback on a system or process can be tough, but it's even more difficult to speak up when you make a mistake. When you make a mistake or catch someone else making one, you may feel angry, guilty, or ashamed, which can stop you from speaking up and sharing what happened.

As a leader, it's important to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable speaking up, even if they feel blamed, angry, ashamed, or guilty.

It is important for leaders to balance permission and respect, which is the foundation of psychological safety. The more permission and respect you give your team or the people you work with, the safer it is for people to speak up and share. Even if they feel blamed, angry, ashamed, or guilty, ensure the environment is safe enough for them to speak up.

As a leader, it's crucial to remember that someone is always watching, and your reactions can set the tone for the culture of your team or organisation. It's okay not to get it right all the time.

When someone makes a mistake, instead of blaming them, have a conversation with them to see how the situation can be corrected and to remind them to ask for help. Doing so creates a safe and supportive environment that encourages growth and learning.

At the end of the day, what you do as a leader counts.

Your reactions and how you handle situations will shape the way people move forward and create a culture of trust and safety. Remember to be empathetic, supportive, and open-minded in your approach, and always strive to create an environment where everyone feels safe speaking up.

How Leaders respond is important because….

  • A leader's response sets the tone for the organisation and impacts employee morale.
  • Leaders who take responsibility model accountability.
  • A leader's response reveals emotional intelligence.
  • A transparent response builds trust.
  • Failure provides opportunities for growth and improvement, and a growth mindset fosters a learning culture.

You can blame and punish, or you can learn and improve. You cannot do both.

That wraps up this three-part series on The 5 Principles of Human Performance.

  1. Error is normal - even the best makes mistakes
  2. Blame fixes nothing
  3. Learning and improving is vital. Learning is deliberate
  4. Context influences behaviour. Systems drive outcomes
  5. How you respond matters. How leaders act and respond counts.

So, which Principle of Human Performance did you find most impactful?

Share your thoughts with us on LinkedIn by adding the hashtag #conversationsthatmatter so we can follow what you have to say.


Related Podcasts

Related Blog Post

Recommended Books:

  • The 5 Principles of Human Performance by Todd Conklin, PhD
  • The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety - defining the path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark
  • Next Generation Safety Leadership - from Compliance to Care by Clive Lloyd


  • ChatGPT - Helping us refine our thoughts

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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