Machine Thinking: It doesn’t work with animals-or humans

A couple of years ago, I was horseback riding on the trail with a friend. It was my second time on this horse. More importantly, it was my second time on any horse in almost 20 years. And even more importantly than that, my thoughts and beliefs about horses and horseback riding were deeply tainted by the modern world. My misperceptions, and frankly my ignorance, got me injured pretty badly.
Humans have been on this planet a lot longer than cars, and in all that time, we got from place to place with the help of animals. By anyone’s measure of history, horses have been a predominant form of transportation for the vast majority of human history. Cars have been a our main form of transportation for only about 100 years. The Army used horses in the Calvary until a mere 70 years ago.
Our ancestors understood how to work with nature and animals, where things happen more or less in their own time and in a natural rhythm.
It’s not that way in today’s world.
Thanks to the dawn of the modern era, we now have machine thinking.
Here’s how I define “machine thinking.” The input directly correlates to the output. For example, you flip a switch and the light comes on. You turn the ignition and the car starts. You move the steering to the left and the car turns. You press the “Buy Now” button on Amazon and the thing shows up at your door the next day. You press the button and elevator arrives. (And regardless of what many of us think, hitting the button over and over again doesn’t make it come any faster.) You hit the brakes on the car and the car stops. All of this happens because there is a predictable, mostly unfettered connection between the input and the output.
But there is a huge problem when you bring machine thinking into the animal world. Animals are not machines and their instincts have not been tainted by the modern world in the same way ours have. Their essential nature has not changed.
Our great-great grandparents knew it took time to cultivate and harvest a garden. Friendships evolved over many years of face to face interaction. Fire was created with a spark and dry material. Messages took weeks, months and sometimes years to get to us. Keeping animals for transportation involved patience, care and problem solving as much as it did getting from here to there.
In the modern world, we want everything now.
The day I fell off the horse, my own “machine thinking” created expectations in my brain that were not relevant in the animal world.
In my case, the horse picked up a trot when I still wanted him to walk. I forgot I was on an animal and not on a machine. When I pushed the stop button (my warped thinking) and the horse didn’t stop, my patience went out the window. My fear went sky high. My brain confused the mechanical with the organic. Rather than try something different, I hit the elevator button over and over again.
To the horse, the only thing being elevated was his fear. What I intended to communicate and what I actually communicated were two very different things.
Because my fear sent me into full on Survival Mode, I was incapable of accessing my ability to calm the horse, assess the situation and give him a minute to hear me and slow down. I wanted instant gratification.
Even though I “knew” I needed to relax, being able to actually do it under this kind of pressure was impossible.
With the person on his back sending huge fear signals, he did what any sane horse would do. He got me off his back. I got to spend three days in the hospital with a broken collarbone, partially collapsed lung — and the question of whether I would ever get back on a horse again.
Reflecting on this experience over the last two years, I’ve learned more than a PhD program or 20 years meditating on a mountain.
Horses are not machines. Neither are people. All too often, I’ve come to expect humans to respond like a machine. My patience goes out the window when I don’t get instant gratification. Rather than get curious, I get judgmental. Seriously? You’re going to write a check instead of a single swipe? Rather than sift through possibilities, I jump to conclusions and run with my first thought.
Many years ago, the bank I worked for sent me to a highly-coveted leadership program for the leaders who showed great potential. It was my first experience getting 360 feedback, and nothing prepared me for the emotional hit I was about to take.
Even though most of the report was positive, there was news about me in there that made me miss the main message of the report. All I could see was that “Lynn needs to learn to listen.” And “I don’t feel valued by Lynn.” See how that works? All these years later I can remember the bad news, while I could not begin to tell you the good news.
I spent a lot of time in that leadership session commiserating with my fellow attendees, all of whom were having similar emotional hits. No amount of placating, comforting, or showing us the facts helped us get out of fear-based Survival Mode. Most of the conversation was about how “they didn’t get it and we shouldn’t have to listen to this and who says I am going to change.”
The machine that spat out a 97% positive report can’t prevent the human reaction to 3% negative news.
Why could we not see the good? Why would we not take the opportunity to use the report for our betterment? How could we let such a small bit of bad news cause us fear?
Because we are human.
Only time, reflection and support helped us come to terms with the truth of the feedback.
As leaders of people, we have to remember that change is about more than pushing a button and getting the new result. We have to remember it takes time and practice and repetitions to be able to actually DO what we KNOW to do. After all, even though we have a conceptual understanding of something does not mean we can do it.
Just because you sent a memo that says “here’s the new way of doing things”, it doesn’t mean that everybody will suddenly be on board. In the best of circumstances, it takes time to leave the old way and absorb the new. Typically, people will just tell you why they shouldn’t have to change. In the worst of circumstances, they will stage a revolt.
Managing change is not flipping a switch. It involves taking people through the “change curve” and giving them a chance to catch up with what’s happening.
The pathway to getting the result we want does not come through a direct connection like it is with a machine. It has to first go through our instincts, our emotions and our need to survive. We have to understand the kind of beings we are really working with here.
How often is the message we intend to communicate different than the one we actually communicate? When does the pressure of a situation keep us from being able to do what we know how to do? What does it take to bring our understanding of human nature to our leadership challenges? How do we tame our own Survival Mode so that we can bring our very best work to the big problems we are solving? How do we recognize others that are in Survival Mode and support them to realize things are not as bad as they first appear?
Simple. It’s just not that easy. We have to remember that people are not machines.