“We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses–one foot is on the horse called “fate,” the other on the horse called “free will.” And the question you have to ask every day is–which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
Courtesy of Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution we know now that we are not too far removed from ancestors, who lived in the trees of tropical forests. The triune model of our brain, divided into reptilian, mammalian and neocortex, reflects these origins and our development to hold the special place we do today within the animal kingdom. And though our neocortex is considerably more developed than even our near cousins, the chimpanzees, we are clearly a product of our evolutionary heritage. We know, for example, since the human genome was sequenced over 10 years ago, that there is a remarkable 99% similarity of our DNA to that of a chimp.
We share with our animal cousins a number of basic instincts such as desire to eat, procreate, bond , and reaction to fear (fight or flight). So what makes us ‘human’? This question has been debated over many years and most of the early propositions around tool making, cooperation, learning, ability to love, have been shown to be inadequate, since more recent animal studies have demonstrated that these skills/qualities are not unique to us humans. One of the most important qualities that differentiate us is our ability to be aware of our instinctive actions and to make choices arising from this. Our ‘free will’ may be more limited than once thought but only a few would argue that we are completely without choice in how we act.
Genetics and neuroscience is revealing the many unseen influences on our behaviour and our natural propensities to act in certain ways. What is very clear is that we do not enter this world as blank slates and are not the rational beings that microeconomic theory would traditionally have us believe. In John Coates recent book “The Hour between Dog and Wolf” he gives a very good description of the irrationality of investors during the dotcom boom:
“Most investors I spoke to had difficulty employing anything like linear and disciplined reasoning, the excitement and boundless potential of the markets apparently being enough to validate their harebrained ideas. It was almost impossible to engage them in a reasoned discussion: history was irrelevant, statistics counted for little, and when pressed they shot off starbursts of trendy concepts like ‘ convergence’, the exact meaning of which I never discerned, although I think it had something to do with everything in the world becoming the same – TVs turning into phones, cars into offices, Greek bonds yielding the same as German, and so on.
We experienced the same ‘irrational exuberance’ in Ireland in the early to mid-noughties in the case of property. People look back now and wonder what caused the madness. Unfortunately, despite the many lessons through history going back to the tulip boom & bust which ended in 1637, these irrational economic events will happen again.
Genetics has made us aware of why some people are more likely to employ risk-taking behaviour, which relates to genetic variants in the brain’s dopamine receptors. However, what is also very evident is that the habits we develop through our life impact the development of our brain which may exaggerate our natural propensities or alternatively may counteract these tendencies within us.
We do have choices and how we exercise these can either start virtuous or non-virtuous circles in how we develop as human beings, both in our work and our social lives.
Developing self-awareness is, in my view, the first step in taking real control of our lives. Whether this is achieved though meditation, coaching, meaningful self–reflection or preferably all three, we cannot abdicate our responsibility and blame our poor behaviour on genes or our animal ,instincts.
I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.
This headline quote is taken from a book called “ Zero Degrees of Empathy” released in 2011 by Simon-Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University. He is also Director of its internationally renowned Autism Research Centre. In his book he states that the erosion of empathy is an important global issue related to the health and well-being of our communities, be they families, organisations or nations.
In the FT on 3rd Jan 2013 there was a thought provoking article on this very issue. It raises the concern that our emotional and empathetic pathways are being eroded by all the ‘screen’ time. We spend so much time on our computers and gadgets that our brain circuits are being rewired to accommodate these tools of modern life. We are constantly processing large amounts of bits and bytes of information, and becoming quite fast at it. But there could be a trade-off – our motivations to understand and care about others. Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley technologist is quoted as saying that – “ We have been designing a paradise for people with Asperger’s syndrome. … – internet sites that reflect the analytical minds of the engineers and IT geeks that built them, that fail to capture the humanistic elements of everyday life. Having seen the movie “The Social Network” about the creation of Facebook, I can certainly recognise where Lanier is coming from. Are we creating the “ the mono brain” as Lanier describes it, where empathy is losing ground due to greater focus on one’s own world? Studies have shown that 80% of the posts to social media sites consist simply of announcements of one’s own immediate experiences.
The FT article directly poses the question as to whether today’s society is developing a preference for communicating electronically over face-to-face interaction. Certainly this is something witnessed in many organisations where work colleagues email each other rather than walk the short distance to communicate directly. Texting is now also now the preferred form of communication among many of the “Millennials” generation. Are younger people missing the emotional training that comes from reading facial expression?
In their paper “The Social Nature of of Perception and Action” researchers Knoblich & Sebanz explained that cognitive scientists have long believed that perception and action are two complementary aspects of the mind. According to this view, perception delivers messages from the outside world to keep the mind informed, and action executes what the mind commands. Individuals do not just infer intentions, emotions, and attitudes from others’ behaviour; rather, researchers have identified a more immediate way of social understanding and social interaction, based on the close link between perception and action. Research on ‘mirror neurons’ indicates that when one directly observes another individual performing a particular action, this activates the representations in one’s own action system that one uses to perform the observed action. This is likely to be important element in the development of empathy and can be seriously eroded when people limit the face-to-face social interaction they have with others. Empathetic, non-judgmental communication is also critical for the high functioning of any business. It’s how deals get done, projects get run, and ultimately how profits get earned.
Empathy is recognised as one of the key competencies of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and unlike IQ it can be coached and developed. It may be the case, that just as personal trainers & gyms have become central to exercising in today’s ‘busy’ world, that coaching emotional intelligence will become central to the health & well-being of the truly digital society.
In their excellent and thought provoking book, Animal Spirits, Akerlof and Shiller, devote a whole chapter to the impact of ‘stories’ on economic developments. As an example they take the waxing and waning of the Mexican economy over the past 50 years. Specifically the discovery of major oil reserves in the early 1970’s which sparked the idea of undreampt-of wealth in the minds of the Mexican people. This was underwritten by the narrative of the then president Lopez Portillo who had published a book about a great Aztec god expected to take a re-appearance at a time of great transformation. It became a story for Mexico’s future greatness and expectations ran wild. Mexican real GDP rose 55% over his 6 years as president. Unfortunately growth faltered at the end of his term and when he left office in 1982 Mexico had 100% inflation and growing unemployment. It doesn’t sound too different to the Irish story except ours was driven by a “well” of cheap money and by leading politicians and a media extolling the miracle of the Celtic Tiger.
Akerlof and Shiller explain that the human brain is built in terms of narrative. In turn, that much of human motivation comes from living through a ‘story’ of our lives. The same is true for confidence in a nation, company, or an institution. Social psychologists Schank and Abelson have claimed that that stories are fundamental to knowledge and that people’s memories of essential facts are indexed in the brain around stories. Michael Gazzaniga, the acclaimed cognitive neuroscientist, has researched how our brains process stories. Basically our brain desire narrative continuity and therefore we naturally need to fill in gaps of information to process them. Our left brain fills in the gaps for the right hemisphere. Gazzaniga says that we need both a right and left brain approach to cater for the way individual brains process our stories.
In a recent edition of Inc. Gell Browning provided 5 brain-based storytelling tips:
1. Simplicity Rules
Think of the example of Steve Jobs when he introduced a new Apple product. It was powerful and engaging presentation but the underlying message was always simple.
2. Be Holistic
Appeal to both the left-brain and right-brain perspectives.
3. I nter-activity is Essential
Y our audience can run a full gamut of behavioral tendencies. In-your-face exuberance might inspire some, but turn off others. Read your particular audience, and adjust how you express your story and assert your value.
4. Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.
Storytelling has to be genuine. Not everyone can be a Bill Clinton and instantly enrapture. What you can do is understand, recognize, and utilize your own particular strengths. If you are highly analytical, use that to your advantage–but make your data come alive. Make sure your pitch sincerely connects to your buyers by itself.
5. A Story Has a Beginning, Middle, and End
Structure, coherence and consistency is important.
Five decades, billions of dollars and millions of man-hours later, scientists have finally tracked down the elusive Higgs boson. This completes the Standard Model, the best explanation for how the universe works, except relating to gravity, which is governed by the general theory of relativity. Without Higgs there is no explanation of where the mass of other particles comes from and, in laymen’s terms without mass there would be nothing to hold everything together.
However, have we each discovered what holds us together and gives our life meaning? To quote the great psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, Victor Frankl :
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Here are some questions to ask & try to answer*:
- What are you passionate about?
- What are the achievements you are most proud of?
- What are you most grateful for in life?
- What are the most important things to you in life?
- How would you describe yourself?
- What are your values?
- What do you represent?
- What is your ideal self? What does it mean to be your highest self?
- If you have one year left to live, what would you do?
- Is there something you’re still holding on to? Is it time to let it go?
- What are you busy with today? Will this matter 1 year from now? 3 years? 5 years?
- How can you make your life more meaningful, starting today?
- What drives you?
- What are the times you are most inspired, most motivated, most charged up?
- What did you do during those times? How can you do more of that starting today?
- How can you change someone’s life for the better today?
- Who are the 5 people you spend the most time with?
- Are these people enabling you or holding you back?
- Who is/are the most important person(s) to you in the world?
- Are you giving them the attention you want to give?
- What is one thing you’re going to do differently after reading this article?
* (from 101-questions-to-ask-yourself)
Leaders of companies need to ask questions about the values and culture of their organisations. As the management guru Charles Handy puts it:
“The companies that survive longest are the one’s that work out what they uniquely can give to the world not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy. Some call those things a soul.”
The results of the latest annual Kelly Global Workforce Index survey, shows that:
- Only half of the staff are committed to their current job;
- 81% are planning to search for another job in next 12 months;
- Just 35% of workers feel valued by their employer, or
- Gain any real sense of meaning from their work
Strikingly, the ability to ‘excel or develop’ is identified by 77% of employees as the key to providing a sense of meaning. One would think that employers and staff would be aligned on this but clearly not in many cases.
A survey last year by Leadership IQ in the USfound that 69% of staff and 30% of executives were unengaged. They also found that almost 80% of executives believed that their employees were not fully engaged and interestingly 72% admitted they were not giving 100%.
What are the Most Successful Companies doing to Engage Staff ?
It was not really surprising to read that Google was voted the best Fortune company to work in. However, examining the nine companies that followed Google in the top 10 slots they come from a number of different industries including healthcare, manufacturing, retail and financial. So what might these companies be doing to keep their staff happy and engaged. The leading article in the Jan-Feb 2012 Harvard Business Review gives us some ideas here:
- Sharing Information – it is significant that Google when discussing its best workplace spot spoke about the regular updates that are provided to all staff in the company and the encouragement to question executives.
- Provide Decision-Making Discretion – Employees at every level are energized by being empowered to make decisions that affect their work. This gives them a greater sense of control, more say in how things get done, and more opportunities for learning.
- Ensuring a Culture of Respect – It is not a coincidence that Google have a Chief Culture Office (CCO), as they recognize the central role that culture plays in the success of a company and the well-being of its staff. HBR cites research which showed that 50% of employees that experienced uncivil behaviour at work decreased their working effort. More than a third deliberately decreased the quality of their work.
- Offering Meaningful Performance Feedback – Too often performance feedback just means the annual rushed appraisal process which, at best, is meaningless and, at worst, is damaging. Instead what is required is an ongoing process and discussion with employees involving real objective setting and constant review and feedback. .
As the HBR article states in its opening headline:
“ If you give your employees the opportunity to learn and grow, they’ll thrive – and so will your organization.“
Contrast this with the fact that in a recent Accenture survey they found that 9 out of 10 European businesses were cutting their training and skills budget.
Rather than just cutting costs in a race to the bottom senior executives need to also consider the payback from investing in developing their staff even in these tough times. They may be pleasantly surprised in the return they get.