As businesses move forward towards the New Economy they are finding reason to increase the use of digital communication with their increasingly mobile and decentralised staff. At the same time there has been a recent workplace trend of rising interpersonal conflict and claims of bullying arising from the personal reading and interpreting of digital communication such as emails.
The interplay between human consciousness and technology is a new key aspect of what creates perceptions in human beings. Whilst the increased public awareness of what constitutes appropriate workplace behaviour is now more widespread, and whilst there are more legal and other recourses for aggrieved parties to seek justice for perceived wrongs, these factors do not in themself fully explain why conflict has risen in the area of digital interpersonal communication between staff in workplaces.
The conclusions of social neuroscience regarding the potential conflict that arises in office environments where technology is dominating human interactions is insightful. Basically the conclusion is there is in all of us a tendency to interpret digital communication through perceptual filters which give distorted outcomes. This aspect of human behaviour is not well understood outside social neuroscience circles but is a primary consideration in the understanding of how and why conflict can arise and bullying claims can exist in workplaces that rely on digital communication channels as a primary bridge between staff.
One of the recent findings of neuroscience is the finding of what is termed “mirror neurons”. This concept relates to how our “fight and flight” Autonomic Nervous system works with our brain to resonate positively or negatively with others based on bodily non-verbal communication. What is going here relates to a key neuroscience principle that in face to face contact any two persons employ a sophisticated set of parallel processes in the brain to read the body language, eyes, facial muscles and postural changes of others to understand if that other person is a friend or a foe. The amygdala has always been that part of the brain associated with our emotional limbic brain “fight or flight” responses. New research confirms that it is also that part of our brain which co-ordinates processing others movements, gestures, inflections and micro-movements of facial and other expressive muscles.
This happens in a way which allows us to firstly mirror others internally in order to understand and interpret them, and then activate a move toward or a move away from response, in relation to that person. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker theory explains how the brain of an observer constructs social knowledge, at least in part, by simulating the emotional state of an observed person. In a sense we know how other people feel because we mirror internally their feelings.
The neuroscience work of trauma researchers such as Stephen Porges and Bessel Van Der Kolk also illustrates how all the myriad of striated muscles in our face have a connection to our heart and the emotions we generate from the heart are then mirrored through our facial gestures. For example our unconscious perception of a customer’s apparent anger may be relayed from our sense awareness organs to the amygdala part of the brain.
We are then primed to feel angry as well as our mirror neurons fire in sympathy with the anger we perceive with the customer. We may in turn then get angry or if we have “an issue” with anger we may then trigger an adaptive response of fear for instance. We may then find that customer interaction deteriorates either on the basis of our triggered anger or fear in turn.
A key network of brain linked nerves known as the Myelinated vagus which are part of our Ventral Vagal Complex provides the function whereby it coordinates a face to heart connection as observed as enhanced regulation of the striated muscles of the face and head in emotional expression.
It also acts to increase the calming of the person and reducing fear. This amazing enhanced regulation of facial muscles result in greater prosody (voice expression), improved listening, and greater emotional expressivity. This key information is received and processed by others but yet is missing in digital communication. The absence of this critical information means that the same receiver neural processes have limited information upon which to process what it takes in as information, and so will tend to draw conclusions that are based on less sensory data, and are less objective.
This highly complex but largely subconscious part of our social interaction processes with others are a critical safety mechanism and social guidance part of our reality. When we start to rely on electronic communication to “socialise” we are stripped of our primary safety and social guidance mechanisms. In terms of our emotional brain centres we are now travelling blind. The attempt by our largely social brain to process digital communication from a place of restricted sensory input leaves a person reliant to largely processing social media, emails, and written and electronic media communication through our left brain centres. These are brain areas or cortexes which are analytical but defensive in orientation.
The net effect is that we as humans are more prone to misinterpret and misread electronic communication with a negative bias. The brain still uses safety seeking and meaning making processes when faced with digital information, but with limited information and context, it is likely to assume foe more so than friend as a default stance. Digital stress caused by information processing overloads and volumes of outstanding emails can increase this risk of reactive processing of digital traffic by staff. Digital stress is now linked to a rise in illness in the workplace due to staff ending up in “fight or flight” as the brain becomes defensive and hyper-aroused by digital stimulus.
This means that environments that are dominated by electronic communication instead of face to face contact are likely to find a higher level of complaints and a higher level of misinterpretation than those where human face to face contact still prevails. Some emerging statistics bear this out. The Notre Dame University has done research in this area. Its research within its own campus found this phenomenon existed and had contributed to a 100 per cent increase in low-level grievance complaints among staff in a 5 year time frame. The increase in complaints occurs in part due to the limited information leading to incorrect context assumptions and conclusions by recipients of electronic communication. Neuroscience has correlated that humans process social interactions via 7 per cent word recognition, 55 per cent prosody or tonality inflection, and 38 per cent body language and facial muscles.
In conjunction some 55 per cent of people have a visual social processing style, 33 per cent are kinaesthetic or body feeling oriented, and 22 per cent are auditory oriented in their social processing style. Digital communication compromises all these constructs. Conscious Business Australia recommend in its consulting framework that businesses be mindful in their workplace with changing cultural norms which would reduce significantly staff face to face interactions. We encourage people to evolve beyond interacting from an anonymous digital persona towards a face to face relational reality as part of workplace culture and norms. Organisations which have higher face to face interaction appear to show resiliency to the increasing trend of conflict and bullying claims being made by staff in workplaces where digital communication is dominant. The use of digital technology is critical to workplace productivity and cohesion but it is important that businesses do not lose sight of what impact digital communication can have on human consciousness and its potential for mis-interpretation, and therefore conflict.
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Regards Richard Boyd
Richard Boyd is CEO and Founder of Conscious Business Australia which offers an innovative and thought leading consulting service for new entrepreneurs, existing business in decline or those who are seeking to update, re-engineer or deal with systemic problems within systems, processes, people or products.
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