Human beings belong to a gregarious species. We live in groups, we organise ourselves in communities, we develop language, rules and technology to communicate with each other, and usually, we work in teams.
In short, we engage with each other and with our environment. Our engagement keeps us safe and happy. By co-operating together, in every form of work and endeavour, we support each other, harness the power of multiple skills, talents and intellectual points of view, and we create outcomes that would be impossible if we lived and worked alone.
Of recent years there has been a lot of interest in the subject of engagement at work. It is recognised that people are happier, more fulfilled and are likely to be more productive if they are engaged with their jobs. In many ways, this is fairly obvious, since you only have to look to your own experience of life to know that you have a better time and feel better about yourself and other people if you feel connected - connected with an activity, connected with other people, connected with your surroundings or connected with an idea.
Underlying this ability to connect or engage is what is probably our species’ highest, most prized skill: the ability to empathize. Empathy helps us connect with the world and people outside our own skins. It makes us understand. It allows us to see and feel beyond ourselves. And by doing this, we keep the group, and the individuals within it, safer and more effective.
Empathy drives our fascination with each other and this underlies almost every form of human expression and drives culture (from reality TV to fine art and literature), commerce and research & education. In every culture and across time, religion, age, gender, and geography, humans are fascinated with each other because we are fascinated with ourselves. Other people are like a mirror. To study other human beings is to understand ourselves better, and to understand better is to increase the likelihood of our success.
Really successful human beings have a high level of empathy, which imbues them with many advantages. Empathy allows us to read signals, understand situations, foresee problems quickly and connect subtle clues. Empathy allows us to see beneath the surface and operate with a sophisticated level of interaction.
People with low empathy struggle greatly. They can’t read social and facial cues, or discern more sophisticated relationships or patterns. They have a hard time “joining the dots”, understanding what other people understand, reading non-verbal language, and picking up on higher order social rules or patterns like metaphor and tone. How things connect is often a mystery to them. People with low empathy have many difficulties with other people and their environment because they can’t read the signals and warning signs. Sometimes people like this are stigmatised with popular culture labels "nerd" and lack of empathy characterizes autism spectrum conditions like Asperger's Syndrome. Without the ability to exercise empathy, human beings have a hard time in life.
Engagement is not just an HR term. All managers and leaders should be developing an engaged workforce and engaging work environment. But it goes much further and deeper than that. There is not a divide between work and the rest of life, and we are ourselves whether at home or in the workplace. Being engaged is what enlivens us, and underlying engagement, is our ability to empathise.
In the world of work, as in the rest of life, higher level empathy allows you to see effectively and well, and to achieve better and more sophisticated results. Understanding other people helps you understand yourself, and makes your path in life more smooth, and gives you respect and influence because you understand how other people tick.
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