Why do people who know one another, who work with one another, actively avoid eye contact, and what are the consequences of this?
One of the organisations that I work in has a long narrow corridor linking buildings. There are roughly 1500 people working there and, although I only work part-time, I reckon that I would recognise at least 2/3rd of them in context. The corridor is a main thoroughfare and it’s almost impossible to walk along it without passing several people. Ever since I started working there I have noticed how people pass one another without making eye-contact. It’s hard to describe but there is a palpable aversion to doing so. So what is going on?
Eye contact is a well recognised form of non-verbal communication which is known to have a huge impact on our social behaviour. It is quite well studied and we know that it has strong cultural significance. (Indeed, there are significant variations in patterns of eye contact across species!) We know that it begins to be effective in both directions from the age of three months.
In Europe, Australia and North America, eye contact plays a major role in establishing the emotional state of the other person, and we use it to convey our emotional state to the other person. Often, this is contextual. For example, extending the length of time that we hold someone in eye contact, can indicate challenge to authority, aggression generally, affection, and sexual interest all depending on the context.
Several studies have shown that eye contact has a strong positive impact on the retention and recall of information and on the efficiency of learning. That said, when asked questions, children who maintain eye contact with the interviewer give FEWER correct answers than those who look away once the question is asked.
There has been some interesting work performed lately in the area of eye aversion. No one was born eye averting. Eye aversion is not an uncontrollable movement of the body. It is a voluntary action programmed and conditioned unconsciously, provoked by a combination of cognitions (limiting thoughts) and limiting beliefs about the other person’s reaction.
Most psychologists now believe that it is an acquired behaviour, often associated with feelings of guilt and shame, that stem from the negative responses to the individual from authority figures and peers when they were young. As adults, the aversion is an unconscious attempt to protect the individual from the reaction that they assume will come from the other person.
So what is going on in the organisation that I described?
Of course, we shall probably never know, because we’re unlikely to conduct experiments there. However, we might hazard a hypothesis or two. A large proportion of the people in the organisation are scientists or technologists and highly skilled ones at that. It has been observed before that it is an organisation that is particularly low on EQ (emotional intelligence) and certainly there are a number of people who experience some discomfort in social interactions. I wonder whether these folks began to be stigmatised, alienated or bullied at school (and perhas even at home) for their apparent intellectual prowess and acquired the eye aversion behaviour as a way of avoiding this kind of response? The organisational consequences could be profound. One example would be the degree to which ‘silos’ form and how few people get to share and experience life in other parts of the organisation. Another is a general propensity to avoid change.
What could we do about this? For some time we have been offering a range of personal development programmes with attendance on a voluntary basis conducted by myself – a psychotherapist. I wonder if we should be considering ways of incorporating more of this material in mainstream leadership and management development programmes? Perhaps too, should we be incorporating far more psychological input into company-wide change processes? Another aspect would be to promote cross-functional relationships – perhaps, in this case, through technical seminars and other events?
In my experience, too many companies can be aware of a problem of this kind and yet lack the imagination or preparedness to do something tangible to address it. Perhaps this short article will stimulate a little more action.