Business is a Social Activity - A Business Anthropologist's View

For many, the insight that business is social is something of a surprise. In much of Western tradition, work and play are viewed as a dichotomy: business falls in the former, and sociality in the latter. But that’s not how the brain is organized. New insights from Neuroscience clarify how the brain functions to keep us focused on others (with emotions – ever heard of them?) A recent article from Strategy and Business explores the implications for managers.

Through the lens of Business Anthropology, it’s apparent that trading is old as the first human communities. Commerce is in our biology. Though I’ve been writing about that for decades, it’s delightful to see what Social Cognitive NeuroScience labs are revealing with fMRI studies; businesses large and small can seize new opportunities.

Our brains naturally respond to change as though it’s dangerous, and shut down our ‘thinking centers’ rather than firing them up. But we can train our brains to be ingenious when exposed to risk. I’m with Jim Collins’ assessment that the ability to face uncertainly with curiosity is the most important skill of our times. Neuroscience illuminates the challenge as well as how to focus on the desired competences.

Unfortunately, our brains are not geared to be effective in the face of ongoing stress like a global recession. We don't tend to get smart. But we humans have a rare gift: we retain plasticity into adulthood. We can learn new moves. And the current business environment certainly demands that we do so.

Perhaps most important to my practice over 3 decades is understanding how we’re inclined to respond to vulnerability. On this subject, current Neuroscience research is stunning. Even when informed that a situation is simulated – even using cartoons and stick figures – smart people feel intense pain of rejection and strong pleasure of belonging and contributing.

The actions we take, the decisions we make, the possibilities we recognize are determined by this powerful programming. Focusing on the vulnerabilities of others inspires our best work. We become ingenious. We can spark our enterprises and fire customers’ curiosity and commitment.

Solopreneurs and small business have a huge advantage in using this force, because we can be so nimble. We can quickly respond to emerging vulnerability and invent new ways to add value. Our forebears have done so for 150,000 generations – that’s how we got here. Any business can be vulnerability-centric. It’s the most powerful force at hand.

Have examples? Please share!

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