Working in complex environments like sport and business mean that there is often hidden meaning or explanations for phenomena that we cannot see.

Just because we cannot see everything that is going on does not mean that it does not exist. This can  play out in how we react to situations, particularly around the decision making of other people. There is a bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error, where we decide that any given set of actions by an individual are dependent on their personality as opposed to environmental or other factors at play.

This happened to me just last week, I was driving on the motorway and taking an exit when at the last minute a car cut across the chevrons at the end of the slip lane, and me. I was immediately outraged and was cursing this person, calling them all kinds of names, and deciding there and then the substance of their character (I hadn’t even seen who the person was behind the wheel).

What they did was undoubtedly dangerous and irresponsible, but was it indicative of the nature of the person driving? Are they necessarily selfish and reckless with little disregard for others?

Consider then the reverse situation, you are running late for an important meeting due to a combination of any number of reasons (one of your children is sick, bad traffic, the boiler packed up at home etc), how many of us have cut a corner and forgiven ourselves because of the circumstances. Perhaps you even mentally tell yourself “I wouldn’t normally do this but…”

Similar situations occur all of the time in team sports. One such situation I dealt with involved a player suffering a chronic injury that had stopped them playing and training on and off for 6 months, leading the player to seek second opinions and treatment externally, without the club knowing. This was interpreted by some as deliberate disrespect from the player to the in-house staff and led to deterioration in the player’s relationship with the performance team.

I was able to meet the player in an informal environment away from the club where we could talk more candidly. It became clear that this player was so fearful of the pain of the injury returning that it was on their mind from the moment they woke in the morning to when they went to sleep at night.

Our initial approach as a performance team had been relatively aggressive as, in the case of this injury, loading was considered beneficial and actually the presence of some discomfort under load did not indicate any exacerbation of the issue.

By properly understanding the underlying fears that were driving behaviour, we could better frame the issue, adjust our approach and what we considered as our timeline for success. The aim of sessions became about keeping the player pain free whilst making some progress, however small. Continuing in this regard we returned the player to full training and playing in eight weeks, and they went on to feature heavily in the season, contributing to success.

When working in complex environments always remember that there are many factors at play that we cannot see. When that complex system involves people, try to decouple behaviour and decision making from the person and their personality and instead try to understand what else is going on in their lives that causes that behaviour to occur.

However difficult, defaulting to empathy and kindness and taking the time to understand these situations may be your best chance of collective success.