There’s a profound feeling that shifts us outside the box of the routine and familiar and opens us to something much larger than ourselves writes Homaira Kabir. We’ve all felt it – the goose bumps on our arms when standing below towering Eucalyptus trees or the expansive feeling in our chests when watching the sun slowly set in the horizon.
Researchers define it as the emotion of awe. Like most positive emotions, it boosts physical health and inspires altruistic action. And yet, awe is more – because it recruits both motivations of the paradoxical human brain. It gives rise to a feeling of fear that is initiated in the more primitive parts of the brain. But it also opens us up to belonging to something much larger than the self, the most human of all needs. It is this whole brain functioning that is so essential for optimal performance, both in our personal lives and at work.
The Reality of the 21st Century Workplace
Most workplaces today function on the quick-fix, efficiency model of the industrial revolution that stands in direct contrast to awe-cultivation. It may have worked in an era when workers clocked in the necessary hours in order to live life after work. But in an age of evolving consciousness and where change, uncertainty and competition are the norm, we’re overworked, unhappy, and disengaged. Somewhere on the journey to progress, we seem to have lost our soul.
Why Awe May Be the Answer
Awe jars us out of our usual way of seeing things. But instead of making us resist change, it opens us up to the passing nature of life and to our integral, albeit tiny place in a much larger whole. We see our fragility and vulnerability, which gives us a profound sense of humility. But we also appreciate the vastness of experience, and the desire to leave something of ourselves behind in the world.
What Leaders Can Do to Cultivate It
Employees who are aware of their role in the organisation and driven to do their best to fulfill it are the “awe-struck” ones who can focus on what is important by connecting it to a larger purpose. Even though these capabilities lie in two separate hemispheres in our brains, we as humans are uniquely equipped to harness both at the same time. As leaders, we would do well to nurture this capacity.
A daily practice of mindfulness develops the awareness to break through the safety of routine and the hammer wheel of emotions in order to experience a much larger sense of being alive.
A mentor who has the potential to experience both the anxiety and the thrill of extending themselves beyond their comfort zone can help employees discover more of who they are and thus rise to their true potential.
Visits to museums and operas are great ways to be moved by something powerful. Organisations that encourage employees to get in touch with the wholeness of their being help them bring their full selves to work.
Organisations that take volunteering and “doing good” seriously answer an inherent human need to find meaning. Employees who can appreciate the positive effect of their work are intrinsically driven to do more.
Connecting with nature is one of the best ways of belonging to something larger and of being reminded of the impermanence of life. It kindles the responsibility we carry towards it – something that is often forgotten in the daily churn of deadlines.
Tapping into an awe-based consciousness has profound implications for the way we live our lives. Instead of confining it to the spiritual realm, leaders would do well to nurture its daunting and exalting qualities in the workplace. But as Kirk Schneider, author of Awakening to Awe points out, it’s not a tool we can use at will. It’s at best a way of being – perhaps closer to the Taoist concept of wu-wei (pronounced ooo-way) – translated as “trying not to try”.
An enigma as paradoxical as the human brain.