Managing human relationships in the workplace is challenging.  Dynamics shift frequently, engagement rises and falls and external factors impact us and our co-workers.  Our world of work is much like a landscape that we need to understand and navigate in order to be successful day-to-day and in the long term.  That is why I like the image of human topography so much.

Topographic map

I came across the concept in a post linking to this Two More Chains article.  Two More Chains is an industry newsletter for wildland firefighting and often focuses on lessons learned from serious incidents and near misses. In that context, human topography encourages firefighters to give as much weight to human factors as they do to the physical topography that influences fire behavior.  In a more typical workplace, approaching relationships as a landscape can help us understand the changing nature of the human aspects of our workplace and then apply the appropriate techniques to successfully manage them.

Where Am I?

If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll know there is a moment of realization of that predicament.  A sudden, “Where am I?” followed by a moment of panic.  Then hopefully, you begin to think critically about the situation.  I think a similar thing happens when something goes really wrong with one of our work relationships–whether it’s a boss, co-worker or employee.  “What just happened?” is the interpersonal equivalent of “Where am I?”  Many of our most difficult interactions happen as a bit of a surprise; a public confrontation, an offhand remark, or a botched management approach.  For some reason, we are caught off guard by an action, a response or behavior.  In these moments it is important to be thoughtful and take appropriate action, but what if we could have avoided that moment in the first place?

Reading Human Topography

How good are you at understanding people, relationships and personal motivations?  Most of us give ourselves high marks in this area, but research shows that we often overrate our abilities.  Ego, bias, fatigue, and lack of information are all factors that inhibit our ability to read situations accurately.  Along with understanding the impacts these things have, we also need to continue to work to improve our ability to understand people, their behaviors and their motivations.  Taking time to really understand situations can often improve our ability to read them properly.

Reflecting on the individuals involved, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses, and their desired outcomes can point us in the right direction as we start to plan an interaction.  After the fact, taking time to reflect on what went wrong in a negative interaction can increase our ability to read situations better in the future.  If you continue to have difficulty reading human topography or get consistent feedback that you misread situations, it may be a good idea to work with someone you trust to help you develop this really important skill.

I Understand the Topography, Now What?

So you fully grasp the situation, now what? What approach do you apply?  Many of us who are successful in the workplace are pretty direct and no-nonsense.  We assume the most direct approach will always be the most efficient.  Navigating in the woods, the direct route can often lead to impassable terrain, thick vegetation, or challenging hills.  Relationships in the workplace can be similar.  It may sometimes make sense to take a more nuanced approach, take action that initially may take longer, but will be more efficient in the long run.

The specific action will depend entirely on the situation.  Successful leaders and managers have a full quiver of potential approaches they have built over time.  Remember though, an approach or behavior that has worked hundreds of times may backfire spectacularly.

If we think of our work relationships as human topography we have the opportunity to see them more realistically, take the appropriate time to prepare our actions, and interact more effectively with the people around us.

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.