All for one, and one for one. Can we switch the focus from "self" to "community"?

Anne-Lise Brown
Anne-Lise Brown ↓ citește în 11 minute
Sep 01, 2023
Citit de 28 de ori

We are still socially distancing 3 years after the pandemic. You might say that’s not true, that we’re back to going out and about and life has taken its normal path again. But even though we might physically be surrounded by people, the social distance is there, and the gap becomes even greater if we take into consideration the emotional, ideological, and psychological distance that is happening.

Do common goals still hold any space in personal agendas?

Does community still play a role in a world where we turn to technology and commodities for comfort?

Is there room for slow connection, the journey of getting to know the wholeness of a person, when all we do online is connect and network?

This is a topic that covers areas of our lives beyond the workplace. It intertwines with our personal relationships, our attitudes and values, and our capacity to be fully present for ourselves and those around us. But it does impact work as well. Because there is no such thing as work-life balance: work is part of life, and learning how to integrate the two, rather than separating them, is a safer way of building a personal moral code that guides authentic and consistent behavior across most situations.

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“Markets privilege the individual’s desire over the collective’s long-term interest, and giving markets free rein marginalizes any idea of working together toward common goals. Homo economicus views people as rational actors focused on satisfying their own self-interest at the lowest possible cost, irrespective of how this activity affects others. Free-market adherents have not only accepted this view but celebrated it as the path toward human thriving—and society’s sense that there is a collective, common good that we must preserve through governance has been, as a result, significantly impoverished.” (Prosocial, Atkins, Wilson & Hayes, 2019, p.29).

For decades now, we’ve been moving more and more towards individualism. We built a society that applauds self-sufficiency, autonomy, and independence. To add to it, there’s been a significant mental health impact that came with the dreadful times of uncertainty, change, and isolation. So the question arises…

How does one (re)connect after focusing on disconnecting?

The paradox here is that social distance made the desire for community and connection even stronger. Even the interactions depleted of physical or emotional intensity, such as sharing memes, reels, and TikToks, indicated an interest in others, a sense of yearning for union, but unfortunately, they led to building meaningless connections in a time where meaning was all there was to grip unto in order to thrive.

The mere interaction with others is a regulating, norm-creating behavior, that reaffirms a commonly perceived reality. But when we don’t get those social cues, our internal voices take the lead. Immersed in psychological talk and self-help culture (outside of the therapeutic, regulated, and safe environment) we occupy ourselves with our rich inner lives and we pour into our cup, rather than in that of our community, to find purpose and reason. The overconsumption of contradictory information doesn’t help much either and makes it even harder to agree to a shared reality, the glue of a healthy society.

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Now circling back to work…

What does all of this have to do with our attitudes at work? Are we really that oblivious that we bring to work the sense of moral disengagement that could be rooted in the personal area of our lives? After all, we are (ideally) self-regulating adults who can identify what different contexts require from us.

The routines of the past 3 years are already ingrained in the working society. It is not a case of differentiating appropriate attitudes here, but more so a case of re-evaluating which of those routines truly still serves us and those around us.

Employees who have become accustomed to social distancing and remote work bring new worries, expectations, and sometimes even unintentional responses to circumstances that up until that point had appeared harmless and typical. Let’s explore one such expectation…

Flexibility is almost a non-negotiable these days. It’s mentioned everywhere and anywhere, from job descriptions to resumes, and social media posts, on the employers’ side with the hopes of attracting candidates and making a statement about the willingness to accommodating their needs and wants, on the candidates’ side with the desire of having the freedom to do things as they’ve gotten used to doing them. There is a great focus on our own flexibility and respect towards our time and our priorities. Yet, we are oblivious to others’ need for the very same thing. “I want you to be flexible in order to accommodate my inflexible needs” - sounds like the must-have requirement of our times. This is not to say flexibility doesn’t have its incredible benefits. It changed the way we relate to work and gave a totally new facet of including personal endeavors in our daily lives. But it is very telling of the self-centered approach that seems to take over these times.

Let’s look for a minute at the academic world. Professors have pointed out that students are not showing up to class, are apathetic and burnt-out, and are not as excited about the development of intellectual culture and community. Faculty themselves are exhibiting similar attitudes. Some say this is a symptom of collective PTSD. Some say it is a consequence of the lack of authentic engagement. But regardless of the cause, the results are loud - students are learning at a lower rate, students’ culture and community are suffering, research creativity is declining, and the business model of higher education is threatened. If we were to look at the workforce, we could probably see some mirroring between the two scenarios. And if the mirroring is not in full swing now, we should still keep in mind that the students and graduates of today are the workforce of tomorrow. Do we still think teamwork is important? Do we still consider collaboration, empathy, and camaraderie key ingredients for a proper working flow?

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This article is not about humans lacking humanness nor about employees (or employers) becoming insufferable. The wheels of innovation are still turning, some people still love their jobs, some leaders still love their teams, and some employees still show up to work every day as well as they can. This article is just about raising awareness about the collective tendency of prioritizing the self over community, and the psychological, and practical impacts it can have on the personal and professional areas of our lives.

So how can we address this?

How can we, as professionals, build efficient teams without sacrificing connection?

And how can we, as individuals, become more present in the shared reality of our communities?

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From a company’s perspective

The book Prosocial (Atkins, Wilson & Hayes, 2019) proposes the Prosocial model, a process that helps groups produce a more powerfully shared identity, stronger participation in purpose, better relationships, and improved performance. This model is based on the concept of inclusive decision-making, which engages all members of a group, which in turn creates a vitalized attitude toward the outcome and an advanced interest in the purpose of the group and the group itself. This process is, of course, context-dependent, seeking a beneficial balance between autocracy and whole-group consensus.

The utopic rationality that defines decision-making in the corporate world usually works by the principle of command and control, meaning that the decisional power is in the hands of the leader(s). This also implies that the leader is to decide who is worth being seen, and who is not. Oftentimes, in companies like this, there is an increased focus on the individual, and collaboration might be seen as an inconvenience. This type of attitude fosters unhealthy competition within the organization, stress, anxiety, and feelings of insecurity. It is what makes employees burned out.

On the flip side, a Prosocial company understands that a group can only achieve something of value together when decisions are made effectively and efficiently. Decision-making is sometimes hard for individuals, let alone for groups, where each member has differing perspectives and interests. Furthermore, we are all driven by emotional systems to defend those perspectives and interests. The real challenge here is not becoming stuck between two suboptimal extremes: centralized power in the hands of a few, or endless unproductive discussion, deliberation, and disagreement. Research shows that groups are most effective when members are involved in those decisions that affect them, such as the rules of how to work together. Employers who come up with the following approach are one step ahead in building solid teams: they involve employees in decisions they wish to be involved in, while not overwhelming them with decisions they’d prefer others to handle. It is a power-balancing shift that shouldn’t be random, based on the feel of the moment but needs to be based on conversation.

“When individuals in a commons have a voice that can influence the issues that affect them, they are energized by the act of protecting and advancing their interests (which can, of course, include caring for others and the group). When a group develops the agreements and culture that supports everybody having a voice, groups can thrive as they weave individual interests into collective purpose.” (Prosocial, Atkins, Wilson & Hayes, 2019, p.136)

The company becomes responsible for identifying the contexts where inclusive decision-making fits. Command-and-control decision-making can also be helpful in certain situations, for example, when a team is in an emergency and lacks time or information about how to proceed. The authors of this model reinforce that unanimous agreements in not necessary, and decision-making falls on the continuum that has total autocracy on one end, and whole-group consensus on the other.

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From an individual perspective

Today, it is evident that our retreat into online life is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. Our deep dives into our own psychology are not a replacement for inter-relational discovery. How can we, then, show up for ourselves and those around us in the most authentic way? How can we foster connection? And how can we be more present in our lives?

To detach from the theoretical or ideological part of it all, we decided to give a few actionable points that could help each and every one of us to lean into the awareness of the value real connections and real experiences have.

  • Spend more time in nature. Nature has the amazing effect of calming our nervous system down and helping us self-regulate in moments of anxiety and stress. And who wouldn’t want to be next to someone who has the ability to think clearly? A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that just one hour of interacting with nature can improve short-term memory and attention spans by 20%. It might be a good idea to use your lunch breaks to eat outside on a bench and go for a walk with your colleagues (or with your family or neighbors, if you work from home) instead of trying to multitask food, remaining tasks, and socializing. This is going to prepare you for being more efficient when you do get back to your computer.

  • Gather with friends and family. People who prioritize socializing cope better with stress. Whether it’s through the process of venting, getting external opinions, or detaching from their problems, time spent with dear ones can help us show up as more balanced versions of ourselves in professional settings.

  • Contribute to a project bigger than yourself. A book that I can’t praise enough is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks. To offer an insight into this action point, I want to quote an excerpt from this book: Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy. These are people who seem to glow with an inner light. They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones. These people are not perfect. They get exhausted and stressed. They make errors in judgment. But they live for others, and not for themselves. They’ve made unshakable commitments to family, a cause, a community, or a faith. They know why they were put on this earth and derive deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do. Life isn’t easy for these people. They’ve taken on the burdens of others. But they have a serenity about them, a settled resolve. They are interested in you, make you feel cherished and known, and take delight in your good.”

  • Discover new hobbies. When was the last time you did something for the first time? Getting out of our comfort zone becomes rarer as we age, and that deprives us of the amazing opportunity of growing and expanding, of being curious and finding joy in the process rather than the outcome. And if we manage to take this same mindset of exploration at work we will be left with plenty of occasions to be in awe of our work, our colleagues, our projects, and our dynamics.

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The division between the self and others doesn’t have to be a consequence of the new ways of working. And the solution to fostering better communication and connection doesn’t have to sound like “Let’s all return to the office”. The change in the quality of your relationships comes from an internal awareness of our attitudes and behaviors and a conscious choice to embrace the complexity of the human experience in the reality of today.

Rather than trying to restructure society in its entirety to support better relations, how about we restructure systems and values that could eventually have a ripple effect?

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