How feeling safe at work delivers lasting resilience, good performance and a boost in staff engagement
Neuroscientist Magadalena Bak-Maier shares how feeling safe and internally aligned is the critical factor in high performance at work.
Earlier this month, I was invited to speak about the future of work at the “The Humans are coming” event organised by Minds at Work, a movement dedicated to “inspire and equip individuals to eradicate the stigma of mental illness and create workplaces that are life-enhancing”. The event highlighted the need to reconsider how to look after people to get their best performance.
A few days prior, I spent a day in the company of over 30 senior managers helping them learn the same. As a neuroscientists interested in supporting productivity at individual and organisational level, I regularly share my insights into how we can develop conditions in which best performance happens.
The concept of “flow”, a state of highly focused mental activity that results in brilliance and high level productivity was first described by a Hungarian-American positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. More recently, the PERMA well-being model proposed by a positive psychologist Martin Seligman, pinpoints five elements that are essential to wellbeing: positive emotions (P), engagement (E), positive relationships (R), meaning (M) and accomplishment (A). My work shows that brilliance and flow, as well as a wellbeing happen when the the mind, heart, body and spirit integrate. Combining insights from 1:1 work as top-performance coach-therapist, results from large talent development initiatives with my neuroscience training shows that for best physical, mental and emotional function, our nervous system needs to be grounded in safety. Paradoxically, this assertion is further supported by work from trauma recovery field and developmental psychology. I believe the key application for integration is in creating a healthy, resilient and effective workplace.
Here is why.
Work has traditionally been about three things: service, value exchange and satisfaction. Delivering our best work requires healthy minds, hearts and bodies. When work is truly fulfilling, the spirit is also engaged as work offers us a means of self-discovery and higher-level actualisation.
When we understand and can articulate the true value of our contribution at work, when we feel that what we give balances out what we receive, and when we get to do fulfilling work, our minds, hearts, bodies and spirit naturally integrate or get in sync. But in today’s world of work, this is rare. In fact, while many people talk of talent shortages, what is in far shorter supply in my view are integrated, whole people. This is evidenced by the rising statistics of internal conflicts manifesting in alarming rise in anxiety, depression, and self-harming behaviours.
Our nervous system naturally senses internal conflict and this in turn activates anxiety creating, fear-based neural circuits. When we’re not aligned internally, we essentially feel unsafe and we become increasingly focused on trying to address this. However, fear-based circuits amplify stress, hyper vigilant behaviours and inherent insecurities. Under such conditions, where the amygdala is hyper-activated, our higher cortical circuits are less active just as we need them to help us make wise decisions. This means that as we become scared and more stressed, we are naturally less creative, less trusting, and lose confidence. This is in direct opposition to what we want and need at work: people who feel safe and whose grounded neurophysiology helps them feel well-resourced to handle adversity and perform at their best.
Consider for a moment your own organisation or the team you lead. How much energy and time gets wasted on activities that have little to do with work and great deal to do with people being unhappy or in need of something they simply can’t name. It is this lack of safety and hyper activated fear mechanisms that make people act out in problematic ways: sabotaging results, fuelling conflict, playing ego wars, escalating trivial matters that waste time and resources, procrastinating and engaging in gossip.
If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. The picture of today’s workplaces is far from positive or productive. Many people asked to describe their workplace say their environment is “toxic”. Staff engagement figures show little lasting positive shifts in spite of significant resources being given to various HR campaigns aimed at motivating employees. A number of current statistics are showing freelancing jobs growing at far higher rate than traditional workforce and the trend is expected to continue. The expectations that millennials’ bring to workplaces, demanding more trust, flexibility, purpose, autonomy, and less command and control leadership are quickly being adopted by all workers. And why not, they are essentially reflective of what all human beings need: their dignity recognised. Against the larger context of headlines reporting on job cuts from Brexit, increases in machination, less support and investment in training and the threat of AI, many workers find themselves feeling trapped in fear and increasing anxiety about their future. In other words, their dominant neurological circuits that are being engaged are fear-based instead of safety based.
But it need not be this way. Developmental neurobiology shows us that feeling safe and sufficiently resourced, promotes creative problem solving and new learning. This is what the workplace needs more than ever!
Feeling safe, helps us feel more positive and motivates us towards solving true challenges the world faces. Over the last years, I have been applying these insights to develop talent in different organisations in the UK, Europe and the USA with encouraging and highly consistent results. They can be summarised as follows: when we focus on genuinely resourcing people’s emotional needs, we tap into their overall capacity to do their best naturally. Thus, too gain the best from people, managers and leaders have to learn the basic principles of how to best nurture human beings, not machines. This means learning how to relate and engage people’s minds and hearts.
Over the last eight years, I have developed a number of tools and frameworks to aid integration of mind, heart, body and spirit. One of them is the productivity raising Grid that supports work-life balance. The Grid is a two-by-two framework that invites people to recognise that everything they will do can be assigned into four key areas: life, work, self-care and career.
Using the Grid in daily life, an individual will naturally integrate as they work out any conflicts between the four Grid quadrants. But the Grid is not just for individuals. The Grid offers great deal of possibility for the future of healthy and productive workplaces. To find out more, I encourage you to check out the July issue of Coaching at Work (pg 48-51), which includes our case study describing the Grid and how it is being used by Network Rail Coaching Academy to support the organisational HR strategy, staff wellbeing and resilience.
At the heart of the Grid, is the principle of balance and interdependence. The Grid recognises that a healthy person will do better at work when their career and life are going in the right direction. It also recognises, that each individual comes to work with different needs and circumstances. Progressive workplaces will recognise and work more effectively with neurodiversity. They will be able to handle varying needs of individuals in a far more agile way than the current one-size—fits-all HR policies allow. This in turn will change how people experience work and how they feel at work.
Where before we have operated with far more distinct boundaries between work and life, the future of workplace will require that we increasingly recognise the fluidity and constantly changing needs of employees so that they can still do their best at work. Tools such as the Grid, aid this. The Grid gives managers and leaders a simple framework for how conversations about work can happen so that the whole person is considered and looked after in a far more human way. The skills for this are not common across current managers and leaders, but they can be easily taught because those in charge of others are human too.
If we want more resilience, more time and effort devoted to the job at hand, and staff willing to invest their mental, emotional and physical energy in the corporate agenda, we have to honour what makes human distinct from our reptilian ancestors: the need for care, social bonds and sense of feeling looked after. One thing is clear. A movement towards a more integrated human is already happening at the individual level and in some organisations. And, it is incredibly generative. Every integrated leader, creates in turn conditions where other people integrate as well. Every leader that battles their own internal conflict, ends up hurting and wasting talent in others.
Conflict wastes invaluable resources. It causes burnout, makes one tired, depressed and sick. The opposite is also true. When we feel aligned within, we feel strong and capable. The time to integrate is now.
Here are five recommendations for how to facilitate more integration where you work.
- Encourage people to undertake more personal development. As people discover more about how they work, they bring richer understanding to the needs that others bring to the workplace.
- Balance out the systemic complexity and heavy IT processes with recognition of the human needs who are still at its very center.
- Invest more resources in developing compassion led conflict resolution skills that are most effective at healing interpersonal conflict instead of fuelling it.
- Give leaders more skills in how to nurture diverse talent by learning to engage hearts and minds.
- Recognise and reward leaders who put service and welfare of others over personal gains alone.
And finally, if you’re reading this article still, instigate a daily practice of building resilience in yourself and others with these two short questions:
- What is it that I truly need?
- How can I help things go better for everyone?
Dr. Magdalena Bak-Maier is a recognized thought leader in the field of human empowerment, top leadership coach and productivity author, as well as MD of Make Time Count Ltd. Her second book, the Get Productive Grid is available in paperback and Audible on amazon.co.uk. For free tools and insights sign up for the mailing list at www.maketimecount.com. © Magdalena Bak-Maier 2019