The Distance Between Us
I’ve been a social psychologist for over 20 years, and it has been a fascinating journey. I’ve delved deep in to the human psyche, investigated what makes us ‘us’, what drives our hopes and fears, what makes us love and hate. This journey has helped me understand our capacities for creativity, leadership, and teamwork; how to turn scientific knowledge in to practical application. For all the wonderful insights this journey has provided, for me one fundamental truth about the human mind has stood out. What really defines us, our aspirations, aptitudes and abilities, is the distance between us.
By distance I mean ‘social distance’, and it is really quite a simple concept: It is the extent to which we feel similar, connected, linked in, to others. Like a smell or a sound, we detect distance instantly. It’s that feeling when you just ‘click’ with someone. It’s your bosom buddy. Peas-in-a-pod. Love at first sight. The science sheds some light on what exactly this feeling is. Neuropsychology has shown how we register, within just a few milliseconds of meeting someone, whether we share key characteristics (age, gender, race). It seems our mind is always attuned to similarity and difference (an evolutionary hang-over from when tribal similarity and difference = friend or foe). Social distance is so embedded in how we think its influence is everywhere. The enormous success of Facebook is an easy illustration. Facebook is omnipresent, transcending cultural boundaries like perhaps no other enterprise in human history. Why? What’s at the heart of its success? Well, it provides a way to connect, to shorten social distance, to mitigate the (now rather antiquated) notion that physical distance is key. With Facebook we can revel in our mind’s desire to connect, connect, connect…
Once we understand just how core social distance is to the mind’s inner workings, we can create opportunities for growth. Assessing engagement using social distance analysis can help you identify exactly where people connect, and where they don’t, in your organisation. Engagement will be high where intra-organizational networks are characterised by low social distance; where everyone knows what they're working towards, and why they’re working towards it. When you can create these networks of understanding, you have the building blocks of a fully engaged workforce. I have become totally convinced that social distance is key to organisational (indeed, national and supra-national) engagement. The scientific evidence is all there. Indeed, as I argue in my book, The Social Brain, primitive forms of tribal engagement may even have triggered the rapid evolution of human intelligence.
What I love about ‘In Good Company’ – The Engagement Coach’s ten-part TV series about leadership and team development, is that it captures the essence of these insights so well. In fact, it’s one of the best translations of psychological science to practical working I have seen (in no small part due to the highly entertaining and innovative way it is delivered). This is why I was delighted to offer some commentary, included in the series, on how events in each show tell us about the psychology of difference, distance, connecting and reflecting. I’m sure you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.
To find out more about our new ‘In Good Company’ leadership and management development programme, please visit www.theengagementcoach.co.uk/ingoodcompany or watch the video below.
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