Everyone has a story about a nightmare Boss or Colleague that amazes you about their lack of empathy, understanding or social awareness.
It’s even the premise for many comedies like The Office. David Brent personifies the boss who lacks self awareness. But the other characters mimic the types we meet in offices every day.
Dante’s Inferno made the point that the type of hell we experienced was the people we were put with.
Many people enjoy their work, yet they hate going into their workplace because of the politics, personalities and dramas they have to endure. It doesn’t matter if you work in a fast food restaurant or a NASA research facility. The people problems are the same.
Technological Intelligence Outpaces Emotional Intelligence
The crux of the problem is that while people can be super intelligent in one field, that doesn’t mean their social awareness evolves at the same pace.
Knowledge doesn’t evolve equally across different fields. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects are much more highly developed. There are clearer career paths and often incentives to study these subjects.
It makes sense for us as a society to focus our attention on these areas.
If you were to play a game such as Civilisation, the path to a thriving society is in mastering the world and developing technologies to prosper. Societies that developed culture and emotional literacy first would be conquered by brutes with superior force. Also, STEM subjects focus on what is concrete and so most easily understood and mastered whereas abstract topics require a higher level of education to be able to start to accurately understand.
The first need of people is survival, safety and shelter.
If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we see that STEM subjects address our physiological and safety needs. However, the need for belonging, esteem and actualisation is addressed by softer, more abstract studies. The problem is that while we have developed mastery over our world, we haven’t recognised our incompetence in human dynamics.
As we get richer, we do not get happier.
In the last 150 years we have had more technological, medical and social advances than possibly the rest of civilisation combined. Yet, we have more divorce and relationship unhappiness. Depression, anxiety and suicide are at their highest levels.
Of course, this is not a causal effect of technology, but because we live longer and have raised expectations, the imbalance with our expectations is jarring.
150 years ago survival was dependent on making wise choices. Women had few rights and most families relied on a smallholding that couldn’t be divided. Families were an economic unit, today we expect emotional satisfaction.
In the same way we went to work to survive and eat, today we go to work as much for achievement and purpose as income.
Levels of Awareness
Spiral Dynamics and similar models argue that our social awareness evolves through distinct and different levels.
We begin as Hunter/Gatherers focused on our survival.
We develop into a superstitious understanding of the world. We ascribe favourable weather to the approval of the Gods and lost crops as disapproval. We seek out Holy/Wise representatives and believe magical narratives.
From this social order some people seek greatness through power and domination. We can see historical figures like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan fitting this mould.
This creates social turbulence though and so as societies evolve power becomes formalised into legal constitutions. Bureaucracies form and we begin to value conformity as bringing order and stability. We divide into good and bad, right and wrong.
From this collective structure, individuals seek autonomy and achievement. They use the social structures to find fame and fortune through more entrepreneurial channels now. The motivation is still for personal gain, but within the social structures.
This creates an imbalance and inequality and people begin to want to create more fairness. So Activists seek to punish those who pollute environmentallly, socially and emotionally. The goal is to create more equality and harmony.
The last couple of levels are argued to be the first that are able to include all perspectives and so create more inclusive and holistic understanding. However, since few people have worked through their levels of awareness individually it is harder to organise an organisation at that level.
Spiral Dynamics argues that the divisiveness of politics is at its core a product of people at different levels of thinking. Conservatives seek the stability of right and wrong and ordered society, while Liberals seek individual freedom.
In short the level of our evolution of thinking determines our perspective and so our actions.
The point I’d like to expand onto that is that, it isn’t just individuals who operate on different levels. Knowledge and awareness of different subjects evolves at different paces. STEM subjects are much more highly evolved.
Let’s compare Medicine with Psychology.
Medicine is critical to our survival. Yet, 300 years ago we didn’t understand about microbes, germ theory or vaccines. 300 years ago we were at a superstitious level of thinking about disease and believing it to be a curse or punishment from God we were as likely to seek absolvement from a Priest or a spell from a Witch as a cure from a Dr.
Today we understand there’s a physical cure and so we’ve moved from superstitious thinking to a belief in cause and effect or even into an autonomous search for optimal health.
Let’s compare with Psychology.
As an independent discipline, Psychology is less than 150 years old. We can see a lot of superstitious thinking in many areas, which has led to problems with therapy and in criminal profiling. People often assume that Psychologists and Hypnotists can ‘control and manipulate’ people or ‘fix’ them.
The world of therapy, though it likes to claim more credibility, is someone’s theory or methodology created as doctrine which is then trained and supervised by others trained in that dogma. No style is significantly more successful, what differs most is the therapist’s personal qualities like empathy and warmth. The most medicalised version, Psychiatry, relies more on biochemical solutions than therapeutic intervention because it’s more concrete and so easier to evidence.
When we look at specific areas like relationships and conflict, the research is even newer and less proven.
In short, we don’t have a significant body of knowledge to draw from and the theories are not proven or established enough to filter down into mainstream common awareness. So when we look at relationships we see a lot of people operating from a level of hope and superstition. Marriage is essentially a triumph of hope over realism.
In almost any other field, the low rates of success of therapeutic intervention, personal habits and marriage would be seen as a systematic problem.
Our low level of awareness make us fixate on character deficiency though. We beat ourselves, and others, up by judging to be bad or unlucky. When someone’s marriage breaks down we blame their partner (or them).
Yet, when more than half fail, there must be a systemic problem.
In a field like medicine, air flight or any more developed technology, we would seek a systemic solution. In an undeveloped field we blame the individual. Knowledge evolves from ignorant guesses to evidence based knowledge.
We move from superstition to science.
Think about the topic of relationships. In a world with more access to more available single people than ever before, more people complain there are no suitable partners. When we can see the lack of logic, we can see the problem is a clear gap between our aspirational expectations and the reality.
The real issue is that we have a fairy tale mentality that if we just find the right partner, everything will work out.
People have the same mentality with money. Millions rely on the lottery as their escape from money worries despite the mathematical probability. High earning, high flyers earn fortunes from their evolved knowledge in one field only to build huge debt because of their lack of awareness of money.
But it isn’t only romantics who hope for the ‘One’.
Managers all over the world bemoan their lack of luck with their staff or their hires. Even the bright people running Google’s Project Aristotle, their attempt to understand effective teams, started out with the assumption that who was on the team was key. Until they found out that what mattered was how the team treated each other.
Whether you are dating or working with someone, how they function is a reflection of how free they feel to be themself.
When we feel controlled, disrespected and unappreciated, we do crazy stuff. So many couples that were once in love now can’t even talk civilly. Because the level of hostility within the relationship brought out the worst in each other.
Yet because our level of awareness in human dynamics is so low we blame the person.
Yet the person you see is a reflection of the environment they are in. Think for a minute about what we do in organisations. We recruit a bunch of people and put them to work together.
Even though we know statistically that less than half of the people are successful in their most significant relationships, we assume they can manage a team which is a much more complex dynamic.
We choose one of the best performers to manage the group disregarding the fact that managing a team is an entirely different set of skills than doing the job. And when it doesn’t work out we try to identify which individuals are to blame.
What makes this even more harmful is the Dunning-Kruger effect.
This is the cognitive bias that people who don’t know much about a field don’t see it’s complexity and nuance. So you have people like Donald Trump who assume treating a disease is like making a deal and can be fixed by injecting disinfectant. Organisations are filled with people in positions of power who confidently propose half-baked theories.
In other words, the least competent are the most confident.
A lack of a sound evidence base means struggling managers are given stupid advice by people who’s position and certainty implies competence. Then when it backfires, they blame the individual for not being as good as them. The result is a work environment that is like an unattended garden, it grows wild.