If you follow any professionally based social media you may have noticed a number of posts offering “pro bono” or “free of charge” expertise and support. It is interesting that times of unprecedented change and the unknown have brought this to the fore and I am keen to explore it more. Is it just down to the kindness of human nature? A desire to stay connected? An opportunity to just help?

I have seen recruitment leaders, for instance, offering free placement support to move skilled employees from one category to another, when employees have been stood down. There have also been a number of specialist consultants offering free advisory and strategic advice to organisations dealing with incredibly challenging times of potential downsizing or feared collapse.  

This begs the questions – is there such a thing as professional altruism? Or is it a time where we, as individuals and humans, need to feel connected and part of something greater than ourselves more than ever?

Let’s begin by looking at the concept of altruism. Altruism has been a hotly debated concept for many years, are acts of seeming altruism really an eventual benefit for the person involved? Charles Batson sought to investigate altruism in his book, Altruism in Humans by positing that human beings are altruistic and that it is more common than we believe, that we can visit a place of acting altruistically regularly. He also suggested that it is connected to our human ability and drive to nurture others, such as parenting young. Baston investigates one source of altruistic motivation, that being empathic concern. So is this where the current situation, of a pandemic virus affecting the entire globe, is promoting and driving altruistic behaviours? 

It is reasonable to suggest that when we feel empathy to others we will offer help, at this unprecedented time, dealing with the Coronavirus, it is not just empathy we feel and understand but a shared experience. I propose that our current times are an exacerbated empathy-altruism hypothesis, not just empathy and a cognitive ability to understand another’s situation but to be living it with them in real-time, one way or another. 

As we have all been affected by the outbreak of the Coronavirus, we are sharing the experiences of income threat, business continuity threat, friends and family health concerns and our lives having changed significantly for the time being. In short, we find comfort in shared experiences, shared experiences create storytelling which is fundamental human behaviour.  We understand and find belonging in storytelling at times of uncertainty, this is when belonging and connectedness matter more than ever. Whatever technology we have at our disposal, wherever in the world we find ourselves, whatever the level of funds in our bank accounts, this virus has been a leveller of sorts and has taken away the norms of our day to day lives – our basic human drive to be a part of a tribe, to sense the nuances of language (both verbal and body) as we communicate & physically gather together. 

So with our only outlet to ‘gather’ now being online, is this where we are displaying our kindness and need to connect with others in similar situations to ourselves? Whilst many people are offering support and time to their communities in assisting the vulnerable in our neighbourhoods with groceries and even a chat down the driveway for 5 minutes, I see many highly skilled professionals offering similar support in business.

I have a friend who runs a very successful headhunting business in a sector which has been decimated by this crisis, hospitality. As the hotels, bars and clubs have been mandated to close and we are advised to stay at home, he has spent his time setting up a website to support skilled hospitality staff into the sectors crying out for people, predominantly retail. As skilled customer service professionals, it seems a perfect switch. So why has a leader in his field done all of this for free? I can only surmise that it is to give back to a sector that has brought him professional success over the years and to still feel connected to the people he has come to know & respect individually over time too.

At this point it seems reasonable to explore our need for routine a little further too. Many parents of babies and young children will remember having been told that “it’s all about routine, children thrive in routine”. Do we thrive on routine as adults too? Do our professions and the predictability of our day to day jobs contribute to the people we believe ourselves to be? Is our identity caught up in our contribution to the wider world in a professional context? 

I find it interesting how busy people profess to be, how they speak of long hours worked and inability to commit time in their diaries as a pseudo demonstration of their success at work, despite being told numerous times in our earlier careers to work smarter, not harder. Our desire to remain ‘in role’, to be at our remote desks and to be carrying on as normal appears to be maintaining our sense of purpose and possibly sanity at times. Finding consistency, predictability and self-imposing routine in times of such unknown turmoil calms our nerves, allows us to breathe and continue to the other side of the crisis – as we all know, nothing lasts forever. When we find ourselves potentially stripped of all the norms it is human nature to find a new way around and create new norms as quickly as possible, we are adaptable creatures, if we can retain a level of identity.

To conclude, it seems reasonable to suggest that humans are incredibly adaptable, if a little change-resistant at times, and are finding ways to maintain the norm as we step into unchartered territory. Maintaining a day to day professional identity and offering our skills to organisations in need feels like a positive use of our time and often hard-earned expertise. 

To refer back to Batson’s hypothesis that altruism is driven by empathy, I think more than ever we are not only empathising but sharing the lived experience of uncertainty and the effect that has on our professional selves. Supporting and contributing to the success of others feeds our purpose and keeps us on our professional pathway even when it is not supporting our financial one – it is belonging, purpose, connectedness and human adaptability in action. We appear to be leaning into our tribal mentality of togetherness in hardship and the unknown. 

I wish everyone well and a safe journey through the other side of these unprecedented times. Let’s welcome in the new landscape once we are free to gather and be our tribal selves once more.