It has recently been theorized that humans grew to dominance on this planet for reasons we didn’t learn in elementary school. We used to believe that having opposable thumbs gave us a leg up, but as handy as that fifth digit is, there are other animals capable of grasping and using tools. Then we thought our advantage was speech and language, but again, there are some species that communicate at least on par with us (and, if you follow Facebook and Twitter, some animals have us beat). Neuroscientists have now discovered the one thing humans are better at than any other animal on the planet; the ability to think as a group. Our minds are wired to literally read each others thoughts, detect each others intentions, and adjust our behavior to fit in with the group. This type of group thinking is crucial when you are one of the weakest animals on the planet. It also comes in handy if you are one of twenty pre-teens and you want to send your parents into a melt-down at the amusement park.
Sadly, as with all things in the grand scheme, everything has its price and every advantage has a down side. In order to create group-think, humans have developed mental triggering mechanisms that dictate our behavior. As much as we would like to believe that, when we make decisions, we weigh pros and cons and arrive at conclusions based on facts, it is these mental flip-switches that guide almost every decision we make. And one of the strongest triggers we have is the urge to be the same as everyone around us. Simply put, we do things because people who look like us, sound like us, and dress like us, do those same things. In fact, the same action performed by different people will be seen as evil (if committed by someone dissimilar to us), or good (if committed by one of our own).
Lest I appear to be damning the human race for this trait, the fact that our urge for similarity exists is not, in and of itself, a problem. It is, after all, what kept us alive for generations. The downside is that when this mental trigger flicks on it limits higher brain function. When we react with a knee-jerk “we are different from them” mentality, it shuts off a different key function of the human brain; empathy. Humans possess the rare ability to understand and share the feelings of fellow two-leggers, unless the triggering mechanism of “they are not us” overrides it. The trigger of similarity is a lower-brain function, empathy is a high-brain function. Without conscious control, lower-brain functions win.
Empathy is another mental faculty that, while not entirely unique to humans, is rare in the animal kingdom (especially at one-day-only clearance sales). We use “they aren’t like us” reasoning to explain all manner of behavior in people we don’t understand or agree with, but this assessment is frequently wrong. More often than not, the other party is actually exactly like us, but they act against us because they believe that we are the “different” ones. For an extreme example, we believe the only reason terrorists can commit heinous acts of violence is because they are insane. After all, only a psychopath could kill so indiscriminately. Psychologists who were recently allowed access to terrorists in the Middle East discovered that these individuals tested negative for any signs of insanity. In fact, the terrorists displayed high degrees of the one mental faculty the psychologists expected to be absent; empathy. The reason the terrorists were able to maim and kill others without feeling guilt was because their empathy only extended to those within their own social group.
So what does all this mean to someone running a business, leading a team, or selling a product? It would be easy to dismiss these facts because, “Hey, I’m no terrorist.” However, a lack of empathy, or reserving empathy only for one’s own social or professional group, is quite common and can cause incredible damage to a company. An attitude of “we are different than them” causes breakdowns in communication, destroying productivity. The same attitude causes turmoil between co-workers. People who lack empathetic abilities misread co-workers’ behavior, and almost always with a negative twist; “He keeps interrupting me because he doesn’t respect a thing I do.” And ask any top salesperson how the ability to read a client’s feelings affects negotiating a deal.
All this can be a bit much for business-folk with a disdain for psychological mumbo jumbo or soft skills. The workplace is rife with people who are better at talking about stuff than they are at talking about people. To these individuals, any conversation other than the task at hand is time wasted that could be put to better use “getting something done.” What these people don’t understand is that ignoring issues of territoriality (the result of over-focus on similarity), and misreading other’s motives (the result of a lack of empathy) can cost the company dearly in time, productivity, and money. Make no mistake, the feelings of anonymity that comes from a population that communicates less face-to-face than ever before are making dissimilarity and lack of empathy an epidemic.
So what do you do? An over-focus on similarity is actually a simple fix. Regular conversations that are not work related are a quick way for people to realize that they have more in common than not. This may seem easy, but devoting time to non-work communication takes discipline. All it takes is a few weeks of a crazy work schedule and tight deadlines and all conversation goes back to the grindstone. Establishing empathy is trickier. Many psychologists believe that people are either born with it or not; in the same vein that people cannot grow a conscience. The earliest signs of empathy emerge around two years of age, so if the prospective employee sitting in the interview doesn’t show it, it isn’t likely to pop up later at a team meeting. Managers can try to lead employees toward empathetic reasoning (“I know you are angry at Jack, but we know Jack is a reasonable guy. So what positive reasons can you think of for his actions?). Some managers are better at this than others, and the outcome is not guaranteed. It is up to you whether you want to screen for empathy during interviews or attempt to grow empathic skills later. I would vote for the former. Either way, creating a workplace where people see each other as ultimately the same, and being able to understand the feelings of others, are qualities no leader can ignore.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.