Teamwork has become a bit of a buzzword, but how often do people actually give a thought to the genuine importance of helping out our team mates at work when the pressure is on?
In an increasingly complex world individuals and teams are under more pressure, and mutual support within teams can make all the difference to individual and team performance. When it is not present, or it’s merely superficial rather than occurring at depth, performance and survivability drops. It’s as simple as that.
“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”
John Holmes (1773 – 1843)
These are great sentiments from Mr Holmes, a 17th / 18th century US politician, about the value of helping others. I wonder how he’d feel about current US politics?
TV chat show host Ellen Degeneres, also recently commented when accepting a Humanitarian award for her charity and community work:
“It’s a little strange to actually get an award for being nice and generous and kind, which is what we’re all supposed to do with one another. That’s the point of being human.”
I believe that most of us aspire to be charitable, altruistic and compassionate, but how often do the selfish distractions of our own busy lives end up watering down those sentiments on their journey from thought to action when we are at work?
For some the act of “reaching down and lifting someone up” could be as grand as dedicating their entire working life to Medicine Sans Frontieres, fighting for human rights in third world countries, or donating an organ. For others it may be a simple as lending a hand to a mate, giving $40 a year to World Vision, or saying something nice when their wife nervously asks them “do I look pretty in this? And they convincingly say “yes”, Actually that last could really be more about self-preservation than genuine moral courage. But in truth it doesn’t matter how grandly that we help others – just that we do.
Most world philosophies and religions encourage charitable thoughts and actions. In Eastern philosophy Buddhists and Hindus might think of it in terms of Karma, that the positivity or negativity of the energy, intent and action that we put out there will come back to us. In Islam charity is one of the 5 Great Pillars of their faith and In Christian theology charity is the greatest of the three theological virtues.
On this basis helping others clearly seems to have a spiritual benefit to us, for the “heart” in a metaphorical sense.
But can it also hold a literal, tangible and very physical benefit? Can we physically benefit rom helping others over and above the metaphorical and philosophical value?
Science would say resoundingly - yes.
Humans have evolved social systems that lay within our brains, sub-consciously seeking social harmony, stability and safety. This helps us to ensure individual survival in hostile environments, where banishment from the tribe could mean death.
There are clear evolutionary benefits from “reaching down and lifting up” others in the tribe for the team to remain strong.
But why do heroic humans also spontaneously risk their lives to save strangers from other tribes and even on some occasions, outright enemies in war? You know, the guy who jumps into churning blood stained water mid Shark attack to rescue a stranger, Oscar Schindler risking it all to save Jewish workers in Nazi Germany.
One could argue that both of these example are potentially very dangerous to the person doing the “reaching down” to help. So perhaps our instinct for decency towards others goes far deeper than we thought and that there is also great potential for us all to become better at helping out one another every day.
Primate researchers discovered what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons” in Chimpanzees and they are also present in most humans although interestingly not in sociopaths or psychopaths.
These neurons will react to suffering or anxiety in others, so that if someone right in front of you was to grab a hammer and smash their own thumb, the same neural patterns in your brain for registering that trauma would actually light up for you (assuming you are not a sociopath or psychopath). Whilst you won't physically feel the pain, a healthy brain is wired for varying degrees of empathy.
The human brain also releases powerful chemicals as part of its reward system for giving and receiving compassion, care and attention. Amongst them is Oxytocin, a powerful chemical that actually has a very healthy impact on mental and physical health. A wide range of medical studies actually demonstrate significantly lower rates of hypertension and illness for those who volunteer or aid others.
Enhanced mutual support engenders trust within teams and leaders, and also helps to build psychological safety within teams. When people feel more open and supported teams develop faster and cope better with stress.
It all begins with a simple act on the part of the individual to look beyond their own needs, to those of others within their team, especially when people are in need or either moral or physical support.
So when composing teams upon functional lines of “eligibility” (e.g. the right CV, qualifications etc), it’s also well worth taking into account factors of “suitability” (e.g. a person’s behavioural fit, character and ability to be a team player).
People within a team who are highly conscious of the emotional and relationship aspects, such as those with the role of “Team Worker” in Belbin’s famous behavioural model, can really help a team under pressure.
So on a final note and to quote Mr John Holmes again “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.”