This scenario is not an impossible fantasy: My dad built a workplace culture like this at the corrugated box manufacturing company he ran for 45 years. It was my great fortune to work within it through the 90s. Over the years, and even more consciously since his death in 2000, I’ve walked with the question: “Why is this way of being together in groups and within companies so rare?” His model had a huge impact on me and helped me create the Shared Leadership Framework I now teach all over the country, a practice of bringing out the greatest capacity in everyone by empowering us all to be responsible for and engaged in the vibrancy and high-functioning of the whole.
As I have walked through the years with this question about my dad’s accomplishments, I’m also aware that as “on fire” and passionate as he often was, there was a grounded quality and calmness that his presence exuded, causing others to feel both safe and uplifted. He led not from an attitude of scarcity but from one of generosity, creating true brotherhood and sisterhood, without ever having to speak to it in this way. He never fed fear and drama but was steadfast in genuine curiosity, trustworthiness, and a grand love for the daily adventure. Somehow, this seemed to suck the intensity of fear and drama right out of any room he was in.
As I have observed and reflected upon leadership styles and company cultures over the years at the societal level, I’ve noticed that we often talk about the spirit of companies. We certainly talk about the heart of companies. We even talk about the soul of companies. Yet in this modern world, with increasing levels of free-floating anxiety and consistent high speed in which the habit of urgency becomes more of a daily norm, I don’t hear us talking about the nervous system of a company. That’s a mistake. If you think of companies as living systems with hearts and souls and spirits, as I do, then a helpful way I’ve come to experience the culture of a company is as its nervous system.
As I think about my dad’s company culture, I now understand that he demonstrated healing ways of being that affected his company’s nervous system in a positive way. He was a natural nurturer, and he built a nourishing, nurturing culture. We worked hard, and a high standard of excellence was never a question. Yet nine days out of ten, I would pull into my driveway at the end of the day feeling refreshed.
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM’S DUAL MODES
We know that within our physical bodies, our nervous system is responsible for controlling and coordinating bodily functions. Within the brilliant overall system reside two complementary subsystems, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. With sympathetic nervous responses, known as “fight or flight,” the body tenses up and becomes more alert for emergency situations. The parasympathetic nervous system counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system by restoring the body to a state of calm: a healing act.
The genius of our system is that our bodies know both how to react and how to heal. In the modern world, though, our high-alert systems tend to be overactive, while our calming systems don’t get the attention they deserve. I could say the same is true for most company cultures. Science shows us that along with our organs being connected within our own bodies by the superhighways of our individual nervous systems, as whole organisms we are also impacting each other’s energy and moods all the time. We certainly know that none of us are operating in isolation. If you pluck one string of a web, the rest of it vibrates. We are inextricably connected to everyone else around us as the impact of our actions ripples out into the nervous system of the group. Therefore, we have a vested interest in and direct impact on each other’s success and wellbeing as we take care to build healing, nourishing cultures and environments in the workplace.
With the nervous system metaphor in mind, ask yourself: What is the state of calm, or tension, within the body of your organization? What is your organization’s current healing state? With a commitment to creating a more healing environment at work, you can incrementally build new capacity for leading together in a nurturing state, building up the overall vibrancy and high-functioning of your organization.
The benefits of incorporating nervous-system calming philosophies and practices into your workplace are limitless. Shifting into the consciousness of building healing environments taps into our innate gifts, talents, body wisdom, and deep cross-cultural wisdom. It will not only lead to healthier, more productive employees, but to cultivating a flourishing environment overall. Imagine your workplace as a healing environment. What steps are you taking, no matter where you are in the system, to make this a stronger reality?
4 STEPS TO HAVING A POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOUR COMPANY’S NERVOUS SYSTEM
1 // DO A BODY SCAN
Begin by slowing down your breath to activate your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. Breathe in through the nose to the count of four and out again to four. After a minute of this deep breathing, gently run your attention up and down your body, from the top of your head down to the bottoms of your feet. Notice where you feel physically expanded or contracted. Breathe deeply into and relax those areas that feel tight. Focus on your breath moving up and down your spine, and how your breath cleanses your brain. Next, practice breathing naturally without pushing. Notice the ease with which your body functions.
2 // NOTICE THE COMPANY’S CURRENT STATE
This is an essential act. Once you experience more openness and calm, ask yourself: Is our company in a reactive state of “high alert,” swirling energy, and continual high speed? Is there a responsive state of calm, joy, and groundedness in the company? What is my own state of being most of the time within my work day? Am I aware of the impact I have on the people around me, on my team, and on the overall vibrancy of our company? What is the impact of our company’s mood on me? Are we embodied in the mood of our mission? In this way, am I — and are we all together — living our mission? If not, why not? If so, how?
3 // KEEP A JOURNAL
For three months, ask these questions and observe yourself, your team, and your company. Do your best to observe with curiosity, not shame or blame. What do you see, hear, and feel about your own behavior and your company’s behavior? Are you contributing more to a nourished, nurturing state of organizational being or more to a state of fight or flight, fear, and drama? Are you a safe harbor in the storm or a part of the tempest? What is your ability to be present, light, open, and calm to support the wellbeing of your team? Based on your reflections, identify one to three new actions you would like to weave into your day to shift into a greater state of calm. Consider inviting your team to practice those actions with you.
4 // ENGAGE IN PARTNER INQUIRY
Pick a “dynamic duo” partner. Check in with each other daily and discuss how you’re doing with integrating your new commitments. Practice asking each other with no judgement, only curiosity and willingness to learn and to provide a supportive mirror for each other’s learning. Schedule 25 minutes to do this daily for 21 days. Holding each other compassionately accountable by listening and reflecting is extremely powerful for setting strong intentions, putting them into action, and understanding your connection to and impact on others and vice versa.
For more healing organizational practices, please visit globalroundtableleadership.com/c/blog.
Lori Hanau is dedicated to supporting shifts in consciousness, communication, and community in the workplace through experiential learning. She founded Global Round Table Leadership, where she works co-creatively to coach, guide, facilitate and steward individuals and teams in opening to their innate brilliance, cultivating the soul of their organizations and their work. She is faculty and co-chair at Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies and on the board of Social Venture Network.
Jodi Clark is an experiential educator and facilitator who stewards joyful, rigorous learning spaces for organizations and teams from diverse sectors to rise into and embody their collective excellence together. She is a team member with Global Round Table Leadership and currently serves as a faculty partner at Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies and is a Core Consultant with their Center for New Leadership.
Lainie Love Dalby is a visionary artist, transformational catalyst, and soul midwife on a mission to free human spirits that have been oppressed and devalued, especially women and the LGBTQIA community. With her own brand of multimedia ministry, and as a team member of Global Round Table Leadership, she is dismantling old systems, ideas and ways of being that promote separateness and limit our full evolutionary potential.