The working world seems pretty hard-nosed, especially when the vocabulary now is downgrades, economic slowdowns and the often adversarial relationship between government, business and civil society.
When retrenchments loom and pay-rises are as likely as unicorn-poop under your shoe, it can seem difficult to keep teams motivated and willing to innovate. Keep your job, keep your clients and contracts and survive this rough patch. And now the boss wants us to go paint a township school?
Corporate South Africa invests around R54bn annually in social responsibility programmes. Cynics may simply see that as middle-class guilt, a sop to the conscience, after which we return to our cosy, comfortable lives, with aching muscles and chipped fingernails as badges of our altruism.
But these acts not only change the lives of many desperate, vulnerable people; they benefit employees, employers and business.
This isn’t some abstract sense of ‘affirmation’ or ‘positivity’. It has scientific basis: displays of empathy are good for you. In the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Zvoboda, author of What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness writes that neuroscientists have found that giving stimulates activity in the same area of the brain that controls pleasure.
“Brain scans revealed that when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex, and the same region that became active when the subjects added money to their personal reward accounts.”
Svoboda adds: “We think of altruism as a sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others, but this new evidence suggests that giving is inherently rewarding: The brain churns out a pleasurable response to it.”
Giving makes us feel good. Doing so with colleagues is especially important in the digital, always-on 21st Century, when we’re increasingly isolated from contact with others. Helping feed homeless people requires stepping out of your comfort-zone. It’s different from signing a petition online, or clicking-to-donate. It’s the physicality of it that benefits us.
Dr Emma Seppälä, Science Director at the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University notes that helping others can help quell anxiety and depression. Her team found that lack of social connections has worse effects than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.
By the same measure, improved social connection benefits physical health—increasing immunity and lowering anxiety.
Seppälä contends that ‘survival of the fittest’ championed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill should be rephrased ‘survival of the kindest’ because sharing increases chances of survival. That may be borne out by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, which found that two-year-olds share and help others without being prompted by adults, tutors and culture.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, observes that seeing empathy in others encourages empathy in ourselves. His findings are backed by a 20-year Harvard University study: The Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network.
Commenting on the findings in The New York Times, policy strategist David Bollier writes: “While all of us have healthy dollops of ego and selfishness, experiments have shown that children have an almost reflexive desire to help others even before parents and culture begin to shape those instincts. The cooperative impulse can be seen in children across cultures, and it is a trait that our closest evolutionary ancestor, primates, do not have.”
So our progress as a species depends on us working together? That’s all a bit un-Trump-ish. It’s the antithesis of his isolationism and his fear of any non-WASP ‘other’.
For the corporate world, there’s a deeper lesson: we need to move out of our silos and build partnerships, be they private, government or non-profit. This is especially true in emerging economies, which face challenges that will remain intractable unless they’re tackled by a broad array of role-players who cooperate.
So the touchy-feely matters of self-actualisation and emotion work in concert with the triple-bottom-line obligations of profits, people and planet and bring a vital opportunity for business to do well while doing good.
It’s cognitive dissonance, right? You employ a kid who risks his life and those of others just to ensure his souped-up Honda Ballade gets in front of that minibus-taxi, then you tell him that giving way to the stressed taxi driver can help address low growth, poverty, inequality and unemployment? Maybe. Just maybe.
William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf enough