What do your social relationships have to do with your success at work?
Probably more than you think.
We humans are hard-wired to connect, and that hard-wiring doesn’t go away when we go to work.
Neuroscientist and social psychologist Matthew Lieberman argues that our need to connect is as basic as our need for food and shelter. In groundbreaking fMRI research, he showed that social pain feels a lot like physical pain to our brain (there’s good reason we use language like ‘she hurt my feelings’ or ‘he broke my heart’ to talk about social pain). He also showed that our brain’s reflex or default mode (what it does when it’s not focused on a specific task) is to think about other people: their thoughts, feelings, intentions and so on.
Why? Why would our brain process hurt feelings the same way it processes hurt feet, and why would it use its precious downtime to ponder our social life?
According to Lieberman, for good evolutionary reasons. Survival hinged far more on an infant’s relationship with its parents than on said infant’s ability to procure food and shelter.
Lieberman also suggests that bringing out the best in people in a work environment may have as much to do with optimizing their social and emotional wellbeing as anything else. “We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our wellbeing depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”
Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, comes to the same conclusion albeit through pathology. Years before the COVID pandemic, Dr. Murthy was raising the alarm about what he termed a ‘loneliness epidemic:’
“The most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.”
Our social relationships matter a lot. And meaningfully affect our mind, body — and work.