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The Power of Firsthand Contact

The response of our limbic system is stronger when it’s triggered by face-to-face interactions. Daimler and IBM wouldn’t be the successful companies they are today if they hadn’t made a sincere commitment to learn about people firsthand. Direct contact provides the human context that allows the limbic system to carefully weigh the impacts of a decision the neocortex wants to make. The biological mechanisms that determine long-term memory and personal associations simply can’t get too fired up about numbers without the human context needed to interpret them. Few of us get inspired just by reading data on a page. We need to create a fuller picture of the people involved for the benefits of emotional memory to make a difference.

Yet, as sophisticated as our neurological systems for detecting the feelings of others might be, we’ve created a corporate world that strives to eliminate the most human elements of business. Companies systematically dull the natural power that each of us has to connect with other people. And by dulling our impulse to care, corporations make decisions that look good on paper but do real harm when put into practice in the real world. They behave like incredibly bright but unfeeling iguanas. They make clever but selfish decisions that ignore possible impacts on other people. Fortunately, people inside companies are not iguanas. They have feelings, and they’re wired to care for one another. They just need to have that response triggered by human contact.

Especially in tough times, empathy is one competency that companies can’t afford not to develop. It can help them to move more quickly, make better decisions, and create new businesses that can fuel their growth. It can even secure the future of their organization. And all that innovation can start with empathy. People are wired to care. Isn’t it time our companies were, too?

Dev Patnaik is a founder and principal of Jump Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies innovate. His book, Wired to Care, was published in 2009.

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