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TED Talk Tuesday: Why Aren't We More Compassionate?

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article is part of our monthly TED Talk Tuesday series, spotlighting can't-miss TED Talks and their key takeaways. You can learn more about our partnership with TED here.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman has spent much of his professional life trying to understand the motivation behind human compassion. His 1995 best-selling book "Emotional Intelligence" reintroduced the concept of human compassion into conversations about how we work and communicate.

In his Ted Talk, Goleman explains why so few people demonstrate empathy, even when they have every opportunity to do so.

"Our default wiring is to help."

Human beings are naturally inclined to help others. That's according to social neuroscience, a new field in brain science that studies the circuitry that activates in someone's brain when they interact with another human being.

Mirror neurons give humans the ability to understand what someone else is going through, without experiencing it themselves. In other words, they give us the ability to feel empathy, which is the driving force behind creating and maintaining relationships.

The concept of empathy has dominated several conversations in psychology and sociology, and it has become an especially important skill to master at work. Studies show leaders who have empathy for employees can increase their satisfaction in the workplace. Two colleagues, for instance, may not see eye to eye. But once they shift their focus and empathize with each other's situation, they are more likely to develop a bond that will allow them to communicate better and produce quality work together.

"We don't take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction."

Even though science tells us the human brain is wired to help others, that's not always how it pans out in practice.

At Princeton Theological Seminary, a group of Divinity students were each given a sermon topic. Half of the students were assigned the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which recounts the story of man who stopped to help a stranger in need sitting by the side of the road. The other half were assigned other bible topics. One by one, the students had to walk over from one building to another to give their sermon. Each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning. But many of the students were so focused on getting to their class on time that they didn't stop to help the man in need, even if they had just read the Good Samaritan.

According to Goleman, these students didn't help because their focus was in the wrong direction.

When we move too fast, it's easy to forget what's happening around us. These challenges can be especially pertinent in an office environment, where employees are driven by timeliness and deadlines. For example, an employee might be so focused on sending a client a deliverable on time that they don't realize that one of their colleagues is struggling to understand something and needs help. However, by noticing when situations like this one arise and actively listening to colleagues, employees can begin to train themselves to be more compassionate.

"There is zero correlation between IQ and emotional empathy—they're controlled by different parts of the brain."

Goleman uses a notorious serial killer with an IQ of 160 to illustrate that just because someone is smart—doesn't mean they understand how to work well with other people. In the world of work, people often associate success with individual talent or intelligence. But brainpower alone will only get you so far. To truly excel as a manager and team player, professionals must learn to listen to and address the concerns of their colleagues. This often means letting go of competition and tension, and putting the needs of your employees above your own. And with technology dominating just about every aspect of modern work, being compassionate requires an additional level of effort—putting down your phone, closing your email browser and having a productive conversation.

So next time you disagree with someone or witness a conflict at work, think about your own motivations. Focus your energy toward what will have the greatest benefit for the most people, and act accordingly.

For the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in business to bringing more humanity into the workplace. Check out this episode from the HR Labs podcast where guest Kelly Monahan of Accenture Research shares advice for leading during times of crisis.

Photo: TED

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