Most workplaces are not awesome. A little awe can help.

Think of a time when you felt a sense of wonder. Perhaps you marveled at the grandeur of a towering mountain. Or maybe you suddenly sensed the vastness of the universe as the Aurora Borealis spiraled across a winter sky. Were you caught off-guard? Did you lose your sense of time but gain a sense of mystery? Did you feel small and deeply connected to something greater than yourself? Then you probably experienced awe. 

The Research

Awe is a powerful human emotion that researchers Dacher Keltner (UC Berkeley) and Jonathan Haidt (NYU-Stern) describe as, “the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one’s understanding of the world: a state of being that straddles the boundary of pleasure and fear.” Their scholarly research along with others has uncovered new insights into the experience of awe as well as connections to important outcomes desperately needed in the workplace.

According to a synopsis in Psychology Today, the researchers report that awe is linked to “enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, improved health, a sense of embeddedness in collective folds, and an increase in pro-social behaviors like kindness, self-sacrifice, cooperation and resource sharing. Awe is one of the few emotions that can reconfigure our sense of time and immerse us in the present moment.”

Nature is often the source of our awe, but as Ingrid Fetell Lee, IDEO design director, pointed out to the Huffington Post, a sense of awe can be induced by inspiring, well-designed structures too. She studies, “the way the built environment affects our well-being” and reminds us that, “Awe is good for perspective shifting.”

The Need for Awe

As I stated in my last post, we could use some perspective shifting when it comes to the workplace. We are stuck in old habits of thinking and leading that are not serving us well. In fact, they are harming us and keeping us from solving problems and fulfilling our potential. We could certainly benefit from more critical thinking, creativity, connection, and compassion too.

Taking it Outside

So last Friday at A Human Workplace: Olympia we met outside to explore and experience awe and to consider how to bring the benefits of awe back to the workplace.

We gathered on the East Plaza Lawn on the gorgeous Washington State Capitol Campus. The fountain danced while the Capitol Dome stood in the distance. In pairs, we recalled times in the past when we’d experienced awe: A snowy hike, cycling through a long tunnel, traveling alone, walking toward the ocean alone at night, visiting India were some of the experiences of awe. And some recall being awed by giving birth, watching a child be born, or watching children play.

Next in pairs we went out for a walk-about, and occasionally paused our conversations about the highs and lows of the week to notice the beauty and grandeur of the state capitol around us. Later we all sat on the grass and shared insights. We were awed by the beautiful structures, the flowers, the view of the Olympic Mountains, of Capitol Lake, and of the Puget Sound.

Reflections and Insights

But a delightful and unexpected thing happened. Many people described being awed by their partners on the walk. They experienced a sense of awe at the human stories of struggle and success, and the character revealed in these stories. They were awed by the amazing colleagues they were with. 

The group described the gathering as peaceful, introspective, connected, and inspired. We usually gather each month in a large, airy meeting room with tall windows and movable furniture. For a meeting room, it’s not bad. But being outside on a beautiful summer day gave a sense of well-being. And the pace was different too with the group experiencing a sense of contentment and calm. The usual frantic rush was gone for a few minutes. That relief was both physical and psychological. Many found it restorative.

Applications for the Workplace

Before returning to our workplaces, we discussed how these insights apply to work. We noted that the pace and intensity of work can be relentless. And the content of work in some areas of public service can be heartbreaking or overwhelming. Burnout is common. Conflict and fear are real. The need is critical for creative solutions and breakthrough improvements all over government.  

Intentionally leveraging what we know about inspiration and pausing for a little awe can help. Ideas to do this included walking meetings to just get outdoors, or more focused "awe walks" to purposefully look for a bit of inspiration to infuse the day. A short journal exercise to notice the natural world right outside your building can provide a perspective shift. Or reading a noble and inspiring short story, or watching a video clip of natural beauty and wonder can help. And as this group discovered, an appreciative conversation with a colleague, listening for their brilliance, may be one of the most awe-inspiring things of all! 

Research in various fields continues to provide new and important insights into human potential, well-being, and performance. We should use those insights to decrease the toll the workplace takes on people and increase both our effectiveness for customers and our satisfaction with our work. The new science of awe is one of those sources of insight. The workplace can begin to shift from awful toward awesome by starting with a little awe.

For more on the Science of Awe in addition to the links above, check out this resource as well as this one

Thanks to Danelle Guerrin, Lean Fellow at Results Washington, for her assistance with this gathering, “Exploring the Science of Awe.”