Good at something? Or good as a person?

19th December 2022

Designers Mind contributor Martina Frattura examines the separation between the person and their persona, and the ability to look at the “bigger picture”.

When Designers Mind held its regular conversations on social media platform, Clubhouse, there was a recurring theme of being able to have a holistic approach to our days; or in other words, how important it is to have a perception of ourselves that is not split between the various roles that we have, that needs to be held together.

It is often common to have the feeling of ‘wearing a different hat’ based on the context and the people around us, calibrating some of our characteristics with the notion of better integration as a result. Aside from the etiquette that is rightly required in some situations, the possibility of embracing all our nuances and not having to impose certain behaviours on ourselves would seem to be the key to lasting wellbeing.

But then, why do we do it? Why do we find it necessary to retune our behaviour every time we walk through a door?

Good at something

The answer is probably linked to the perception of “professionalism”.

If we wanted to draw a valid guideline for all types of work, professionalism could be defined as the quality of performing one’s role in the best possible way. Expertise in one’s field and effective communication are certainly two of the main attributes of a professional, who continues to increase their knowledge over the years. 

Above all, a professional is a person with a strong work ethic.

Obviously, all of these definitions are only suitable outside the private context, but considering that everything is based on the exchange with other people, the clear separation of roles is shortened in the presence of transversal skills.

Social skills, typically teamwork, problem solving, communication, adaptability, critical thinking, time management, and interpersonal skills, are considered essential for the final assessment in the work environment; but being fundamental for every interpersonal relationship, they act as a bridge between the two worlds.

If on the one hand, we have the capacity for a specific action, on the other there are the psychological, relational, and communicative skills that are the basis of social interaction.

The difference between these is of great scientific interest both as different applications to different tasks, and because they are connected to different areas of the brain for their processing.

Good as a person

One of the most important social skills is the ability to empathise, and in some cases even adopting another person’s point of view.

Understanding what others want, in addition to being a specifically human trait (according to studies at Caltech with Chimpanzees, for example), is a bridge to better relationship networks – being sensitive to ourselves and to others without having feelings and thoughts fully communicated explicitly. In the world of work, and beyond, this specific skill is transformed into a magnifying glass for factors such as understanding, validation, and listening, which, again, are the foundations of any interpersonal relationship in any field.

So, does feeding our more creative or logical side with activities that implement soft skills help us broaden our point of view? Is empathy the key?

Empathy could be considered one of the main characteristics with which we label “a good person”, but considering essential any transversal competence is a limit because not everyone can have access to the same experiences and therefore develop particular areas. The risk, in this case, would be a very non-inclusive environment.

The bigger picture

Then the right question could be, how do you feel when you watch someone behave selflessly?

In neuroscience, among the different experimental programmes that analyse rather complex psychological problems, there is the one that studies the feeling that people get when they observe someone else engaged in something very altruistic.

At the University of Cambridge, particularly the Body, Mind, and Behaviour Laboratory, they study brain activation following exposure to what they call a “moral beauty” event.

At a neuronal level, there is an interplay, much like the one that occurs when you start referencing the big picture instead of being attached to your current concerns. That is, when we experience a feeling of moral uplift, our brains respond very differently than when we only appreciate the other person’s share of abilities.

It is linked to the sphere of abstract thought, of wonder, that we would not normally see react as a function of a purely working discourse.

The answer to the question above would be, then, being uplifted and inspired. What can be called an exceptional act of moral beauty towards another person actually leads to the direct benefit of feeling inspired to do the same. 

Linguistic relativity

Whether it’s being aware of a co-worker’s emotional state, or interacting and sharing your emotions, or actively supporting someone, it’s probably not a speech of specific skill or exponential empathy that makes us good people. In fact, that’s not even the ultimate goal.

For years we have been making our own definitions inherited from the past that separate the private sphere from the professional one.

However, whether it’s in a work environment or not, our days are dictated by our exchanges with others, which often makes us an inspiration to someone.

The semantics of each language constitutes a reference system for human thought and behaviour. That’s why stepping away from narrow scopes might help us to become the only role model needed: ourselves.

Image: Youssef Naddam, courtesy of Unsplash