I keep a number of quotes in my work office wall for a routine reading throughout my days.
One of them is by 92 years’ young Benedictine monk David Steindl Rast.
It says, “Today is a wonderful new day, I have never seen it before”.
We live in a sea of complex and contradictory messages concerning the nature of our value and standards in this day of age. There are constant tensions we are being asked to manage between the agendas of the individual and the collective, the organization and the constituents, the government and the society, etc. Whether we are a ‘global senior director of research and innovation’ at a multi-national corporation or a ‘veterinarian’ in a small local clinic, we are each stretched for our ability to live consciously and beyond our developed capacities. Even though as human species, our survival, well-being and skillful adaptation to a given context are highly shaped by the quality of our awareness and choices, we have literally become limited in our ability to think, to feel, to be. This is largely dominated by environmental factors and certainly by some chosen habits.
Our sympathetic systems – the one that allows us to fight or flight in dangerous situations and meant to serve as a survival mechanism we find are now chronically triggered across a large variety of demographics today. The quality of the air we take in, the syntactic lights we become exposed to, the amount of telecommunications we take part in, the digital vehicles we are required to work with all serve as non-stop stimulators leading to the chronic release of hormones that affect our immune system, inducing stress and inflammation in our bodies. Even if we get a 7-8-hour sleep, go into work on time and experience what we may consider a productive day managing our tasks and relationships considerably well in the workplace, many of us end up finding ourselves overly exhausted at the end of every single day.
This observable shrinkage in capacity has another bearing consequence. In this limited state of ‘being’ – the way we show up in the world, the more power we find in our positions, our awarded titles and perceived material successes, the more critical we grow of others’ contribution and their messages, too.
This is especially true in today’s volume-focused organizational cultures, where questioning is no longer encouraged, a short cut to an agreement and to reach a target is an ultimate expectation. It is a fact majority of our work cultures are more concerned with the survival of status quo and enforcement of values that support absolute order in reach of a KPI rather than diversity of thought, emotions, experience and unified rejoice of discovery. As an organizational psychologist, I find this predictable path of “unthinking routine” and “I have the answers in me” attitude far more of a threat to business sustainability and to human evolution over any imagined competition. It is my practical experience that where there is no challenge to current ways of being, relating or doing inside an organization, cultures erode faster, leaders miss seizing opportunities, employees fear ramifications of their offering and businesses are often late responding to critical moments of crisis.
The act of wonder – not only looking but beholding a space, growing the required comfort to sit with attentive and focused awareness and without judgment may be the key forward.
What is wonder?
Wonder, in an organizational context, is about having a beginner’s mind.
At an individual level, it can be described as an emotion or a state comparable to surprise. It is what we feel when perceiving something new, rare or unexpected on a positive tone. I tend to think of wonder as ‘reality-based consciousness’ because personally, I find the more conscious I become, the more wonder I am able to see around…
In terms of leadership, wonder seems less apt compared to other core human attributes I have written on thus far (purpose, courage, foresight, emotional insight), yet, it is a critical part of human evolution and intellectual exploration – especially in relation to future of work. When exercised, wonder has an immense impact on individual pro-social behavior. The challenge, of course, is often to grow practice, which requires not only an ability to take in beauty, also a desire to swift through a feeling of strangeness and non-sense, which is a particularly difficult state for leaders to accept as we tend to think we have to be in control and have all the answers ready in our pocket at all times.
In a collective sense, wonder can be described as the recognition towards one’s offering and an ability to find value in it for its uniqueness – even if there seems no immediate merit in relations to the context provided at a provided time.
The scientific definition of wonder hold three facets: our ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds, an active engagement with and responsiveness to artistic, moral, and natural beauty including the excellence, skills, and talents of others and an active responsiveness through both cognition and emotion, engagement from both mind and heart.
Turns out wonder has a critical impact on our work experience and business results, too.
Why is wonder important in the workplace?
One of the main benefits of wonder-full living is expanded awareness into all realms of reality and critical thinking. Trained incapacity can easily lead us to wrong decisions despite the presented reality and most certainly when circumstances change. This is most relevant for today’s business context, where volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity are most prevalent. Of course, awareness has no shape or color and it is beyond presence or absence, coming or going. Therefore, we are called on to step into a clear space of curiosity and to grow a desire to know more if we are interested in expanding our reality and training our critical thinking skills. If you think about it, in the busyness of life, it can serve as a gift to focus on moment’s experience, engage in day-dreaming and let our minds weight in about possibilities without needing to worry about consequences for a second.
There is another key benefit to exercising wonder in a collective sense. According to science, when we experience a sense of ‘awe’, we physically experience a shrink of ego. During our studies, when measured people in this state we found, they not only feel happier and their wellbeing gets elevated, they become more invested in a bigger good at the same time. As a result, people in a wonderous state approach individual ideas and emotions as a guide to unseen truth and demonstrate a genuine willingness to find out a greater reality together. This behavior, we have come to believe, serves as a practical antidote to innovation.
In fact, we have been able to validate in environments, where leaders reportedly exercise wonder, people mark their mind being often active than passive, taking joy in intelligence, being more “at the moment”, reaching towards relevant facts and feelings, searching for feedback, engaging in reflection to see and correct mistakes – all in all, a clear orientation and commitment toward continued learning.
It is also amazing the lacking impact of wonder in a collective setting. In the environments, where leaders reportedly were not exercising a sense of wonder, we found a particular attitude develop. Inside these organizations, the majority was reported acting as though they have an answer for everything. Those in leading positions act on assumptions, people behave unaware of their individual biases and organizations engage in conduct of process biases. There was an ‘I know it all’ attitude and as it developed over time, creativity came to a full stop.
A hand-full of technology firms around the globe have caught up to the magic of wonder and have been offering practical tips for their employees to find more reflective space and to feed their mind, body and soul.
How does one better exercise wonder in the workplace?
There are many ways to grow a sense of wonder. Devoting attention to ‘now’ is certainly the first step forward. When we can show a will to be present in a given moment, we find growing alternatives inside of our minds and hearts. Then, showing consistent commitment to approach discussions from different angles without having a need for the quick label (for example, right or wrong) is important. Deeming value in the process of discovery and aiming for valence experience from a participant perspective are two other impactful behaviors on our way to developing a state of wonder. Recognize whether in human resources or in marketing, whether we are a first line manager or a third line executive, we can all become committed to growing skill around these activities if we choose to.
There is, however, one particular tool I want to offer up to all of us, future leaders and that is asking what I call leverage of “attentive” questions.
Asking questions, in general, is uniquely powerful that is overly underutilized across the management population, anyway. Exploratory questioning that builds our attention around the topic at discussing is a wonderful tool for unlocking value and hidden potential in organizations. It spurs learning and the flow of ideas exchange. It fuels creativity while building rapport and trust among its team members. Every time I challenge an executive team to put this behavior in practice, they are in awe of its effect. The key to remember is that not all questions are created equal. For example, descriptive questions precede speculative ones and those demanding synthesis drive more effectiveness. It is also important to understand any question imposed aggressively becomes toxic very quickly in an organizational context.
Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry Wehmiller, was quoted in a recent HBR article saying “… the way you lead impacts the way people live”, which I will add to “… and the way we live impacts the way to leadership”, too.
There is an interconnectedness and interdependency between the inner self and outer self, the individual and the organization, the business and the society, etc.
With our growth in emotional insight and on our path to wisdom, we now need to remember knowledge has three degrees (whether we’re conscious or not) in opinion, in science and in intuition. Overconfidence is not only often driven by insufficient consideration of unknown evidence; it actually drives poor decision making at an individual level and hurts our collective ability to achieve ground-breaking creativity. Therefore, ask. Ask more, ask consciously and clearly, ask with an intend to truly listen.
You’ll be surprised…