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The "Give a Shit" Gene

My favorite coworkers and employees are quite varied in their looks, interests, habits, upbringing, and education, but one thing they have in common is what I call the “Give a Shit” gene. I am not sure what chromosome it may be located on, but I inherited it with them. We will call it the “GAS gene” for this article. Can this gene be turned on or turned off based upon environmental factors? When you reflect upon your work experiences or family interactions there are certain people that come to your mind as being so reliable and dependable that you could never do without them. I am in the medical field and in my world key areas we “give a shit” about include: the patient personally, doing a complete job, helping your coworker, and advancing your education and competence. We all know people throughout our lives that are highly educated and trained but lack the GAS gene or GAS outlook. This implicates that diligence and dutifulness, and true grit and character may be inherited and not trained. I have also seen and thoroughly enjoyed very lowly educated or trained employees who do have the GAS gene, and because of this trait, they become easy to train and educate, loyal, fun, and a total asset to the cause and simply invaluable to the work at hand. So let us investigate if “giving a shit” is born or bred.

“Giving a shit” requires a fair amount of conscientiousness, and already behavioral geneticists have discovered a little gene, the SMOC1 gene, which is located on the 14th chromosome closely attributable to this trait. There is investigation into LAMB1, DYRK1A, and COL19A1 gene snippets as well. Now I am no smarty pants in the genetic arena, but just when I thought I was being facetious regarding a true locus wired into the DNA that may make some people more dutiful or dependable than others, there is advanced work underway regarding encoding of these personality traits. I agree that really caring and feeling responsible about doing a respectable job involves these conscientious genes, but truly “giving a shit” involves intangible esoteric personality traits that embrace a love for humanity, satisfaction for a job well done, and an ethical commitment to your tribe. This may be hard to articulate and nail down, but we all know people who just “have it.” They typically take on more tasks, lead, spearhead, care, and embrace their tribal members with deep commitment. These are not the people who are disengaged, “punch in and punch out,” neglect duties, or walk away from responsibility. Organizational psychology recognizes inherited genetic traits will come to the workplace. The ability to manage stress, the motivating factors to enhance productivity, or the willingness to obey authority is proposed to have a genetic underpinning. A budding field of sociogenomics has been investigating success outcomes by looking at many thousands of genomes and applying algorithms that may identify educational outcomes and successful lives (Alison Beard, Harvard Business Review). Sequencing the gene snippets responsible for these traits will take years to figure out, but it also explains how a similar childhood upbringing, or a consistent management style does not affect everyone equally. Your success in relationships and in the workplace might truly hinge on whether you inherited the GAS gene!

The environmental and nurturing model of personality traits comes into this discussion to figure out whether one can learn to “give a shit” without the GAS gene. Dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, and sex hormones create a biochemical environment to influence our genes and can affect whether certain snippets get encoded to deal with risk-taking, authority, aggression, and caring. The external environment will also affect our epigenetics. Work in the behavioral field has identified ways to improve upon compassionate and caring tendencies, but the basic disposition stems right back to the inherited genetic code supplied to you in utero. The childhood upbringing and foundational teachings that impact people do not always necessarily create a straight path to a caring attitude. I have seen such variability in my favorite people who give a shit. There are those who had such treacherous and abusive upbringings, that you would nearly conclude that no energy or empathy could be left to extend to a coworker or a client. Yet some of these fine folks had resilience from those abuses with a razor-sharp precision to cut through the chaos and noise to never beat their core esteem down. On the other hand, think of those people who had loving parents, safe environments, resources, and top notched educations, who cannot muster up any ability to care about the job or the associates with whom they work. That said, what are the classically proposed conditions that will foster a concerned interest in doing great work? Some believe that you can teach skills, but you cannot teach care. The social environment at home, school, and the workplace can lay bricks to helping someone find their path, and in the process, find their reasons to “give a shit.” To borrow the work of Jeff Haden parents can teach kids to become good friends. He also promotes teaching a child to live a life that they want to live. Teach them that small steps lead to big steps and working the way up to greatness is the challenging work of being good. He also believes in helping people to feel good about themselves, and in some of these excellent life lessons, the child will value challenging work and develop the responsibility and care to always do a decent job. An employer, on the other hand, may need to massage to bring the most out of an employee who may not have inherited the GAS gene. An employer needs be trustworthy him/herself and should put faith in the employees. This is the opposite of micromanaging. Active participants who are valued and who are fairly treated will engage and care about the job and being part of the work family. No matter the skill set of the employee, allowing integration to the team, and creating and accepting atmosphere where people really care about each other will also foster a responsible attitude. And to that note, the industrious worker who is eager should have access to educational advancement to learn new skills. Nurturing a work culture of appreciation and fairness will encourage that employee to “give a shit” now and always.

How do you spot someone with the GAS gene or GAS attitude? This may be difficult, which means that you can never judge the book by the cover. We are talking about personality and ethical traits that will manifest in behaviors such as being courteous, punctual, engaging, dependable, respectful, consistent, gracious, humble, and just enjoyable to be around. For those employees, family members, friends, and coworkers who inherited the GAS gene with me, it has been an enjoyable ride and gave me so much to contemplate over the years of how and why I enjoyed working with some much more so than others. You know who you are. You are valued. You are loved. And I am so glad you gave a shit!