Migration and the issue of trust

Migration is an often discussed issue but in the last weeks it dominated the headlines. As the British public tried to make up their minds ahead of the General Election, with immigration one of the key issues, thousands of people from the Middle-East and Africa, desperate for a better future, lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, forcing Europe’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs into ‘crisis talks’. At the same time, ‘xenophobia’ raised its ugly head again in South Africa, with the government sending in the military to protect migrants from violent mob attacks by locals.

Mike Batley from the Restorative Justice Centre in South Africa writes that sending in the military, although perhaps necessary to restrain violence, will not fix the problem: “What is needed now more than ever is the understanding from the field of conflict transformation that incidents of violence cannot be understood in isolation from the deep historical, structural, cultural, relational and personal contexts within which they occur. It is only when these roots are identified that a horizon of the future can begin to be imagined. Such an approach goes beyond negotiating solutions and builds towards something new, to quote John Paul Lederach, a pioneering thinker in the field. This approach indicates the need for reflective inquiry, for opening up spaces for debate, dialogue and conversation.”

Talk to each other

At a symposium held by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, participants acknowledged that South Africa is still a deeply traumatised nation that needs the kind of leadership from government, private and public sector that will help it to find healing. Another important outcome was the call for engagement, “to begin to have difficult conversations”.

South Africans, IJR says, “need to honestly and openly talk about race, racism, white privilege, xenophobia and the social capital of a white skin. We encourage you to talk to each other and not to use online platforms to share your opinions about these topics. And not to talk about the issue from the outside – but have debates and engagements in township communities. It is easy for outsiders to propose solutions if they stand outside the lived realities on the ground.” Engagement also “actively contributes to up-skill less fortunate communities through engaging with local community and culture groups. And understand your country – act not only when things happen but be involved consistently and participate on an ongoing basis to contribute to change in South Africa.”

Not to be trusted

Talking to each other and engaging with the issues together with those are who affected by it most are all tools for building trust and strong relationships. Sociologists Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley go a level deeper and argue that it is the lack of relationships that has fueled the kind of violence South Africans and their foreign guests have witnessed in the last weeks.

They write:

The breakdown of family cohesion in mostly fatherless township households has eliminated shame and neutralised moral inhibitions. Overburdened mothers, often without maintenance payments by the absentee fathers, are unable as sole breadwinners to provide the emotional intimacy and security needed by youngsters. Gangs function as family substitutes and identity enhancers. Underqualified township teachers have utterly failed to instill in pupils the political literacy that would help them comprehend global migration.

South Africans of all hues cultivate the exceptionalism of being in Africa but not of Africa. Newcomers from the alien, dark continent are not to be trusted. Well-qualified foreign science and mathematics teachers could function as role models, besides raising standards, but the teachers’ union does not welcome cosmopolitan non-nationals into its ranks, let alone being lectured on political education.

Competition for jobs by unemployed youth amounts to a cliché. Looting schoolchildren are not yet in the job market. Neither does alleged inequality between foreigners and locals explain the antagonism. Somali tenants mostly start from scratch with loans from relatives; they frequently employ locals, extend credit to customers and pay their rent on time. They work longer, harder and sell cheaper, because of the small profit margin and an ethos of “collective entrepreneurship”.

Self-hate by locals fuels envy of successful foreigners. In economic terms, societies around the world have benefited from the skills and hard work of newcomers. Yet such reasoning does not persuade losers in the competition for scarce resources, which is perceived as a zero-sum game.

Why can’t locals emulate the foreigners and learn from them? Why can’t they also buy wholesale and introduce smaller mark-ups? “We don’t trust each other,” answered many local respondents in our research. In an atomised space of marginalised people, mutual trust of responsible citizens amounts to a delusion. The very notion of community is problematic. At the most, an exclusionary solidarity exempts local shops from being looted, but not equally poor blacks from outside being attacked.”

Although very complex in some communities, to counter the ‘fear of foreigners’ (which is what ‘xenophobia’ amounts to), there needs to be a concentrated action on building trust between people, a foundational aspect of any relationship, whether it is in Africa or in Europe.

Question:  Is there anything you can do to build trust in your family and community?

Image of South African flag from the Constitutional Court by arboresce, Wikimedia

Do relationships matter in the election?

CAMBRIDGE – In two days time, the people of the United Kingdom head to the polls to vote in the general election. The election has, understandably, dominated the media over the last few months. The newspapers and airwaves have been full of politicians and parties making promises about what they will do should they be elected on May 7th. Whether it is pay rises, taxes or economic stability, the promises that have been made, in the hope of securing votes, have been around issues of finance. Judging by the way it has dominated political discourse, it is the issue that politicians see as the most important issues for the British electorate.

These issues are all incredibly important, but missing has been any real discussion about the things that matter most: relationships. Indeed, material wealth is a poor indicator of true well-being. Surveys and studies repeatedly show that it is our relationships with those closest to us that we believe makes life worth living. Pledges focused entirely on financial matters reduce people to merely financial beings, when of course we are more than that.

In the interview below, Michael Schluter, the founder of the Relational Thinking Network, talks about the importance of relationships in life in general and specifically their importance in business. The interview took place in 2010 for ABC radio’s ‘Life Matters’ program. The book referred to is The Relational Manager, and can be purchased from us here.

Image: “Polling station 6 may 2010” by secretlondon123 – originally posted to Flickr as Polling station

Where does capacity come from?

“Don’t tell us we need to change. We can’t: we are already working beyond our capacity.”

“I don’t even have time to think about whether I shouldn’t be doing this.”

“I will think about doing that when I get the chance.”

There should be a fundamental difference between a group of a hundred individuals and a well-functioning organisation of the same size. Yet when individuals are working at their capacity, a hundred people can look like nothing more than a hundred people. Organisational capacity is created by good working relationships and the fluid connections they make.When an individual is working at full capacity, any curve ball, any change request, in fact anything extra, will be treated as a distraction. Even an offer to take some of their workload requires a decision, a hand-over and co-ordination. Adding more people requires all that, plus training and orientation. At full capacity, therefore, individuals become bound to do things that someone else might be able to do more effectively and efficiently.

Effective, efficient organisations realise that investment in relational connections is fundamental to building organisational capacity. Relationships are required to enable the right people to do the right things at the right time. Stop and think about that: without the right relationships, it is likely that the person, activity or timing will be wrong. Inefficiency and reduction in output follow.In order to make change happen, capacity must be used to build relationships and maintain them. Thus, ironically, in order to be in a position to increase the overall volume of work, it is necessary to be working at less than full capacity. If your organisation is already at full capacity, it becomes extremely difficult to create the relational space necessary for change.

Once an organisation has the space to change it will need to recognise the specific issues with their current relationships, address them and manage ongoing improvements to the way they relate. If relational issues are not addressed, inefficiency in engagement and connection will unnecessarily absorb an organisation’s precious capacity.

When someone in your organisation is failing to deliver (or your whole organisation is failing to deliver) it may well be that you have a capacity problem. In that case, improving working relationships is a great place to start in bringing the availability and capability necessary to increase capacity.

This article was originally published by Renuma, one of our member organisations, and is republished here with their permission.

International day of happiness

March 20th may have completely passed you by as an ordinary Friday. However, it was the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness.

On the campaign’s website it says:

After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.

But modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.

Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity.

We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. For the International Day of Happiness, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

This campaign rightly recognises that our relationships with others are fundamental. Yet we are so slow to do anything about this. Author Robert Hall writes: “Recent studies jar us with how important relationships are to our health, wealth and happiness. We are all in the relationship business and by any standard, business is not good — ours is a relationship recession if not depression.”

So if our relationships are fundamental to wellbeing and flourishing, if they are the most important thing to us, then we need to prioritise them in all areas of life. If they are essential for happiness, then we need to take action to strengthen our relationships and focus on others instead of a materialistic pursuit of goods.

In a previous blog on our website, Lorna Zischka writes:

We’ve seen how important relationships between people are to human flourishing, and we can discover in study after study that giving people (people putting resources into relationships) tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those who just spend their money on themselves. So maybe instead of asking ourselves how happy we are, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing for others, to make them happy. That is the question that matters for a flourishing society”

Translating the best…to the rest

I was at Jamie’s Italian recently in Liverpool. The menu had all the trademarks of the man’s appreciation of simple quality. The décor combined a sense of kitchen with a marketplace. The staff, albeit without a hint of Essex, had a familiar enthusiasm about the food they were serving (apparently they are trained to know about each recipe). It worked – a tried and tested approach with a distinctly local character, crammed full of customers.

But it doesn’t always work. The chain’s flagship Istanbul branch reportedly filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

A restaurant offers a combination of concept, venue, recipe, ingredients, a chef’s skill, service and customers. The mix of these elements is often dynamic and subtle. Knowing how a great restaurant is working today does not tell you how it got to be great, let alone how to replicate it elsewhere. Which is why successfully rolling out a complex package to a wider constituency is challenging.

The NHS England Vanguard programme of New Models of Care has set out its stall to explore scaleable and replicable solutions. It is planned that the first wave of sites will pave the way for a group of early followers within a matter of months and years. Simon Stevens described the choice of Vanguard sites being made on the basis that they were already ‘performing strongly and have good relationships’. Selecting sites with strong relationships makes sense, as the success of an organisation depends on how well it connects internally and externally. The biggest challenges lie post-vanguard: how to translate what works for established partnerships (that also have access to a coordinated support programme and a share of £200m) into success for the rest.

Prominent amongst these challenges is how to replicate relational capital. Relational capital already exists within the Vanguard sites. Like an established restaurant, these sites have the wherewithal to adapt to improve customer service. How those sites got their strong relationships and how to help others build strong relationships is a different question.

Taking another example, it is striking how the relationships (some of them longstanding) behind devo Manc were so crucial in getting the agreement for devolved health and social care budgets for the city region. Where capital is less developed, as amongst some of the hoped for early followers, the parties to the relationships will need help to develop the capital they need. Unlike financial capital, relational capital cannot simply be transferred from headquarters. Adopting only the model or method or even providing the finances will not be the whole package for the post-vanguard sites, as numerous examples of public sector ‘pilot-itis’ testify.

The Vanguard has a real opportunity to address this. If NHS England generates a detailed understanding of the relational capital fuelling the first wave of sites, it can support the next wave to develop good relationships more quickly. Many areas struggle to broker trust and common purpose amongst stakeholders, finding themselves battling organisational self-preservation and chequered histories of engagement. However, relational capital can now be quantified and explained in ways that can be adopted by another system relatively quickly. Introducing a common language and understanding of inter-organisational relationship will practically help areas ‘make it real here, regardless of where we are starting from’. With this sort of outcome, the New Models of Care programme will truly be transformative.

This article was originally published by Renuma, one of our member organisations, and is republished here with their permission.

Why let mission-critical become mission-crisis?

Any time-management guru will tell you to distinguish between the urgent and the important. In practice, non-urgent but important tasks get shouted down by the ‘Do it Now’ category of urgent importance. There are, after all, plenty of these on the table for most organisations. The result is that non-urgent issues that should be carefully planned for, simmer away until at some point they drift into the urgent importance camp and get attention.

The mission-critical activities are apparently obvious: hitting the quarterly earnings forecasts, staying within the quarterly budgets, achieving the performance targets. Shareholders are told that the relationship with this or that stakeholder is mission-critical. As employees we hear leaders saying, “Our staff are our most important asset.” As customers we see organisations appoint Client Relationship Managers and we experience an inexhaustible flow of requests to understand our preferences.

And yet our hunch is that relationship is not an important priority for most companies. We see the customer relationship, the employee relationship, the supplier relationship or whichever relationship neglected up to the point it becomes critical. The news is full of banks, hospitals and global businesses that have delayed addressing their mission-critical relationships until they have ‘gone critical.’ For some leaders, it seems that relational issues are like global warming – we should do something about it someday, but if it is going bad, it’s going bad slowly enough for other more urgent things to get our attention in the meantime.

It is true that relationships take time to build and they can also take time to ruin. There is a sense of momentum in relationships. Neglect acts as a decelerating force. At some point, that deceleration becomes acceleration away (e.g. losing a key client) and occasional attention will no longer counteract the change in direction.

Poor prioritisation can miss the fact that some things need to be done regularly. Monitoring relationships and investing in them is one of those regular tasks. If your organisation is not monitoring and investing in relationships, mission-critical connections will eventually get your attention when they are in crisis. But why wait that long? A company neglecting customer value will struggle to meet its earning forecasts. A manufacturer who is not investing in supplier relationships may find budgets spiralling. An organisation in the dark about its clients’ needs is unlikely to meet its performance targets.

There is no need to leave your critical relationships to chance and circumstance. Understand them and consciously build them.

This article was originally published by Renuma, one of our member organisations, and is republished here with their permission.

In pursuit of happiness

By Lorna Zischka

All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

1=very satisfied
2=fairly satisfied
3=neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
4=fairly dissatisfied
5=very dissatisfied

Life-satisfaction or ‘happiness’ questions like this one are becoming increasingly popular in surveys of public life. This is because of the suspicion that the standard, materialistic measures of welfare (GDP/income levels) don’t necessarily deliver a better life.  The logic goes that if money isn’t making us happy, why measure it as an indicator of wellbeing? Why not measure happiness directly? This sounds fair enough on one hand, unless of course happiness indicators generate their own problems in misdirecting our attentions…? In seeking answers on these issues, let’s start with income measures of wellbeing.

It certainly seems to be the case that although buying more ‘stuff’ can give us a short-term happiness boost, the feeling does not last. Research suggests that our expectations quickly adjust to our new status, and then we are left feeling no better-off than before… until the next input boost of ‘stuff’ that is, which is to put us onto a kind of materialistic treadmill. This isn’t the only complication: we can easily get so that more ‘stuff’ only makes me happy if my stuff is at least as good as or better than that of my peers. And since they probably feel the same, we all end up in a ‘stuff’ competition and are unable to feel content with the things we have if others around us have more. Some people are even driven to borrowing in order to keep up, so that today the heaviest consumer countries in the world are the ones where private borrowing levels are highest; it is not people in the neediest countries that have the biggest debts! Despite all the effort and sacrifice put into the accumulation of goods, life-satisfaction levels are dropping fastest in the most consumeristic societies! Once a country is outside the bounds of real deprivation (around only US$15,000/year income on average), there is no relationship whatsoever between that country’s average income and the average happiness of its population. A race for more ‘stuff’ doesn’t seem to be the way to happiness – not only because it doesn’t do the job efficiently, but also because its pursuit destroys the planets resources and is becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective lifestyle. So then, what does lead to happiness?

Ask the average Brit and nearly 60% of respondents will mention some kind of relational connection as being most important to happiness – family first and also friends. No other factor comes even close. Health, the next biggest factor gets a mention by only 24% of respondents. Financial security and living conditions get far less mentions. (fig.1)

 

pie chart updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig.1: Factors influencing subjective wellbeing
Source: Sustainable Development Commission, 2009

This gut reaction is backed up by plenty of evidence. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) came up with ‘five ways to wellbeing,’ which are a distillation of masses of evidence on what matters to happiness (fig.2).

Flowchart

Fig.2 Five ways to wellbeing.

Source: New Economics Foundation

Of the five factors, two are directly oriented to other people, giving and connections. And these two are also linked to one another – connections for example depend on giving time to people!

The relationships we have with others are certainly good for our own sense of wellbeing, but there are wider implications also. We live in an interconnected society and we could not even have a functioning economy without trustworthy interactions between people. When rules are fair, enforceable and where opportunistic people are not constantly trying to find loopholes, trust can flourish and with it, our ability to collaborate.  Collaboration is vital to our productivity, since our joint outcomes when we work together, each doing what we do best, is far greater than the sum of what we could achieve as separate individuals. Mutually beneficial and supportive relationships make us more secure too. What goes around comes around, and since we are not being capable of independence and self-sufficiency at all times, we do better in connected communities where we help one another out.

Having said all that, how did you feel when you first read the ‘happiness’ question at the beginning? Does the whole question of ‘increasing happiness’ turn your thoughts turn inward (what I need to make me happy) or outward (how can we make the world a happier place)? If your thoughts turned inward, it suggests there might be a flaw in ‘happiness measures.’

The psychologist Carol Ryff offers perhaps a more profound definition of happiness based on the ancient concept of Eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’. Eudaimonia emphasises ideals of belonging and benefiting others as one part of the big wellbeing mix; a concept which again enshrines the importance of relationships between people. Ryff pinpoints six items which are found to improve psychological wellbeing:

–          Autonomy
–          Personal growth
–          Self-acceptance
–          Purpose in life
–          Environmental mastery
–          Positive relations with other

So whilst a hedonistic approach to happiness might seek whatever maximizes my own personal pleasure for the moment, Eudaimonia emphasises wholeness as a person and within a society. Thus whilst a hedonist might value extra material goods or free sex or lying one’s way out of trouble because of the pleasure it maximises and the pain it avoids, Eudaimonia puts these things into the context of environmental damage or family break-up or a loss of trust in society. So some individual ‘good’ in the short term might have to be renounced for something of greater (and maybe communal) value in the long term. Enter then the concept of virtue. Virtue is about moral ‘goodness’. Wikipedia says in its definition, ‘personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness’. Those exercising virtue contribute to a happier society.

There is an odd thing about virtues however. Researchers find that although virtues are instrumental in improving the wellbeing of society, they have to be exercised for their own sake. If the goal of a person is happiness, that person probably won’t find happiness by trying to be virtuous. However, if that same person loves virtue and is virtuous for its own sake, then they are almost certain to find happiness as a side-effect!

We’ve seen how important relationships between people are to human flourishing, and we can discover in study after study that giving people (people putting resources into relationships) tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those who just spend their money on themselves. So maybe instead of asking ourselves how happy we are, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing for others, to make them happy. That is the question that matters for a flourishing society!!

Lorna Zischka is a PhD student in Economics at Reading University.

Image by Sias van Schalkwyk

Why relationships matter in schools

By Robert Loe

 The ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society.


I know relationships matter
.
 Relationships matter far more than we like to openly talk about and yet I haven’t met someone yet who didn’t agree. On Monday 26th January, however, I listened to Prof Colleen McLaughlin speak about why relationships matter in the context of education. I have never heard someone speak with such authority on the subject. Prof McLaughlin, drawing on decades of research (a lifetime’s work), asked her audience to accept several “assumptions” about why relationships matter. Why “assumptions” I thought? The evidence presented was utterly compelling and supports everything that I believe and that Relational Schools Project has uncovered in its own research in the last year. So why “assumptions”?

I take it the reason is that, in Professor’s McLaughlin’s view, she is “yet to see a school take relationships on as a topic“. Well this is the work I would like to do for a lifetime. Today, I want to share with you why relationships matter, and the reasons many of the schools we work with have already taken on this challenge.

Relationships matter because “learning is mutual and deeply social”

McLaughlin reminds us that relationships matter because they lie at the heart of the way children learn. Learning is not an individual cognitive thing; it is a social thing. I know I make this sound a little trite but it has enormous implications for how we view classroom environments. You cannot learn if you are frightened. You cannot learn if you are unhappy. You cannot learn if you feel you don’t belong in a classroom.

What’s more, you cannot hope that by adding an intervention, yet another activity to the ever-growing list of a teacher’s workload, you can make people feel engaged. Rather this is a radical change in mindset. You have to change everything.

Everything matters

You have to change the way children relate to each other in the classroom. You change the way you do learning in a way that assimilates mutuality and relationships. You have to change the way teachers relate to each other in the staffroom and challenge the values that teachers are made to operate under. And let’s be clear when teachers hear the message of Relational Schools Project, they like it and they like it because it reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place: they love children and they want to see them grow up, mature and send them off to build a society not just hold down the job. Such values are distinctive from the values of our current system which espouses competition, standardised testing and fear. In Singapore they have a word that encapsulates this value: the word is “kiasu” – be afraid to fail.

 What is enacted in schools and their surrounding communities on a daily basis matters because they shape the personal and social development of young people.

Why student-student relationships matter

We know that about the age of 8 or 9 young people begin to gravitate towards the peer group and they become the most significant source of emotional support. When young people are in trouble they go to their friends first. We know that if you want to intervene in the mental health of young people, the most powerful thing they can have is a friend. That’s why we worry (and we should worry) about young children who struggle to form relationships  or who seem isolated.

Being victimized by your peers at school is significantly linked to low levels of psychological well-being, low levels of social adjustment and higher levels of psychological disturbance. What’s more, we know that if problems remain into adolescence, they often last into adulthood. As the result, the most powerful thing you can do with a young person is intervene while they are at school.

How should teachers respond?

What we tend to do as teachers when we see someone experiencing peer difficulty is form a good relationship with the student. Research shows we need to do something quite different: the most effective intervention is to encourage interactions with all the people in the classroom. But this seems daunting doesn’t it? How can I achieve this? How can I maintain it? How can I control it? Isn’t this the job of the pastoral teams of the school? Teaching and learning, on these terms, becomes far more than supporting academic outcomes; it is the foundation to academic success and personal and social growth.

Most young people think they have a very good relationship with their teachers but McLaughlin found that there was a statistically significant group who have strong negative relationships with staff  and they were often young people with mental health difficulties. That is not irreparable. We know that if a child is depressed and they can form good relationships with staff they will improve.

Research, which I explored in a piece for BERA recently, also shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff but if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). Moreover, Smith and Rutter found that where young people have strong relationships with teachers, they are less like to become involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour and far more likely to have increased engagement with school.

Positive school relationships correlate well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. More recent studies of relationships in school have found historical, “concurrent and longitudinal connections with school attainment and adjustment outcomes….popular/accepted students tend to do well academically and are more prosocial, and have higher self-regulatory skills” (Blatchford and Baines, 2010: p.239). In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish. Michael Rutter adds that being connected is more than just the ability to make friends and is as powerful as being literate or numerate. The ability to connect is linked strongly with feelings of self-efficacy; I feel that I can be effective in the world. Such students in his study were ten times more likely to be employed and ten times more likely to be in a stable, longstanding relationship such as a marriage.

You see, relationships matter because “the ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society” (McLauglin, 2015).

I was inspired by Colleen McLaughlin this week. I hope you will be too?

Robert Loe is the Director of the Relational Schools Project, an education research and consultancy group based in Cambridge and a member of the Relational Thinking Network. This blog originally appeared on the Relational Schools Project website.

New Year’s Resolutions?

LIVERPOOL/CAMBRIDGE – Keeping those promises to ourselves about losing weight, getting fitter, taking up a hobby or getting a new job seemed realistic when we made them, full of hope (or was it punch) a few weeks ago as 2015 dawned. Are we now, with many others, sadly realising that it isn’t happening?

Trying to ratchet up my own will power rarely seems to bring the changes I desire. It isn’t my decision to change that makes the difference; it is more about staying the course. Those who do succeed in keeping their resolutions seem to have two things in common. Firstly, they don’t try to do it alone. They join with others who are trying to achieve a similar change and they often have a coach to encourage them along the way. Secondly, they measure their progress. Measuring doesn’t change things in itself, but it helps keep the focus and helps identify when activity is having an impact.

Each year, organisations all over the world tell their stakeholders they are going to get fitter, leaner, better, bigger. Despite the resolution and public promise they often fail. Within organisations, we promise our boss or our employees that change will happen but the reality of the urgent and important soon takes grip. What do organisations who actually achieve change have in common? Perhaps it’s that the decision-maker doesn’t try to do it alone and they have simple ways of measuring progress.

Your network of relationships with those trying to achieve the same objectives is going to be crucial this year. How strong are those relationships? How can you achieve and maintain alignment? Who else do you need to be aligned with? Is there a way to keep track of the health of your relational network? Will you be able to tell if it is too weak and where misalignment is occurring?

This article was republished with permission of one of our Member Organizations, Renuma Consulting.

Relational Living (3): Neuroscience

It turns out, according to neuroscience research gathered together in David Rock’s popular book, Your Brain at Work, that our brains are wired for social connection.

No WAY!?

I hear you thinking. Sorry for the sarcasm. But just writing that first sentence made me realize how ‘duh!’ it is that the brain would be wired in such a way that matches how we experience life. Anyway, here’s a tidbit of the neuroscience (social cognitive neuroscience, to be precise) that appears to support “Directness”. And it’s all based on recent (since 1995) discoveries of “mirror neurons”.

Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness” or “Touch”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully. It can also be mediated, even when face to face, by dishonesty and fakeness: there’s a real me and a real you, any fronts we put up reduces directness.

It’s a pretty cool discovery actually (despite my ‘duh!’ comment). Mirror neurons, scattered throughout the brain, light up when they observe “intentional action”. That is, they won’t light up if they see random acts, but if they discern intent behind the action, the same neurons fire in their brains as though they themselves were doing it. (Effects of commercials on children, anyone?). The powerful limbic system that triggers a response to threats or rewards obviously kicks in once the intent has been discerned. Here’s the explanation from Christian Keysers, a leading mirror neuron research based in Holland:

“What happens is that when we witness another’s facial expressions, we activate the same in our own motor cortex, but we also transmit this information to the insula, involved in our emotions. When I see your facial expression, I get the movement of your face, which drives the same motor response on my face, so a smile gets a smile. The motor resonance is also sent on to your own emotional centers, so you share the emotion of the person in front of you.” (p160)

Here are a couple of other quotes from the book that seem to support the idea that ‘directness’ is an important factor in building good relationships:

“The more social cures that are stripped out of communication, the greater the likelihood that the intent will be misread. “The more we can see each other, the better we can match emotional states”. (P160)

Collaboration with people you don’t know well is a threat for the brain. Perhaps, after millions of years living in small groups, the automatic response to strangers is “don’t trust them”. (p162)

An abundance of social cues makes people connect more richly, perhaps in challenging ways at times. For example, when there is an abundance of social cues, emotional information can travel swiftly between people in a type of contagion.” (p161)

And now a few application thoughts/questions (some mine, some from the book):

1) Workplace learning. What learning performance is lost with online training? Do virtual worlds provide a close enough approximation to real-life that our brains might learn social behaviors from avatars? Is there an optimum amount of time a team needs to gather face to face to be most effective? (I’ve misplaced a piece of research MIT did on that, something to do with a ‘pulse’ (gathering, moving away to research, coming back again, pulse-like).

2) Management. Think that your attitude or stress-level has no effect on your workers? Their brains can’t help but be affected by you.

3) Communication. Precisely because we don’t want to discern another person’s reaction (and therefore trigger a reaction of our own), we resort to sending emails, or doing nothing, rather than face them.

4) Autism spectrum. It appears that mirror neurons show damage in people with autism. It also appears that therein lies a clue to a better response/treatment.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first two in this series were published on 9 and 16 January.