Softening The Edges Of The Heart

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Recently a client said to me,” I need to soften the edges of my heart.”

His comment surprised me but was consistent with the nature of the work we are doing together.   Successful and driven, my client has come to realize there’s been a high cost for ignoring personal feelings  connected with work. 

The comment certainly got me thinking – what does this mean for me – what do I need to pay attention to?

I tried to break it down into segments. First there is the notion of softening. Then, what does it mean to have an edge? And, exactly how should I think about the heart?  How then would I put it all together in a post so that it had resonance in terms of one’s personal and business life?

Edges create borders and boundaries. They can also create a separation between the self and others. In today’s workplace with all of its exigencies; global realities, rapid technological changes, competitiveness, fear, anxiety and uncertainty, it doesn’t take much for our edges to become unconsciously hardened.

Crossing the border into the other can feel too threatening. But what are the consequences of not doing so in terms of human connection, compassion, empathy and love? You can imagine the positive impact on workplace relationships, collaboration and individual performance when those hard edges soften and we walk respectfully and gently into the “territory” of the other.

When it comes to the workplace, the word territory has even greater implications. Increasing levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty in the workplace, along with what seems to be institutionalized competition, insidiously hardens those heart borders between self and other. 

For example, let’s take employee engagement.

Gallup’s employee engagement study revealed that 30% of U.S. employees are engaged, 52% disengaged and 18% actively disengaged.  In other words, 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.  As the study suggests, a glaring factor influencing employee engagement is an employee’s relationship with his or her own direct manager. The dynamics driving those statistics really goes to the “heart of the matter.”

As much as some organizations encourage employees to check their psychological and emotional lives at the door… it’s impossible. Our relationship to our work extends well beyond our job description. A manager’s ability to cross the “border” into an employee’s unique humanness: their beliefs, values, emotions and needs; thereby demonstrating empathy and understanding of who they are, not just what they do, requires the willingness to act from the heart, not just from the head.

The trajectory of the US workplace since the industrial revolution has brought us to an inflection point where businesses, if they are to be profitable and survive, must shift to a people-oriented mindset.

As expressed in her post, Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History, Rita McGrath traces three eras of management thinking, (execution, expertise and empathy) – from the industrial revolution to present day management theorizing.If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

So, if we accept the notion that we’re in the era of ‘managerial” empathy, trust the validity of the Gallup study, and the truthfulness of our own personal experience about what appears to be lacking in manager-employee relations; what then is the corollary with softening the edges of our heart?

How often have you heard people say, “ Follow your heart,” ‘Let’s get to the heart of the matter,” or  “He’s suffering from a broken heart?” Where do those statements come from? They’re not formulated out of thin air. They come from a deep, viscerally instinctive place of unconscious knowing in our bodies. There’s plenty of scientific studies supporting the suggestion that the heart is more than an organ that pumps blood…in itself, an extraordinary feat.

Stephen Porges, Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in his Polyvagal Theory proposes that the vagus nerve communicates between the brain and the heart and that our unconscious perceptions of threat and safety are connected to heart rate rhythm and the ability to regulate physiological arousal.

According to Porges, we have a multi-level, hierarchical nervous response system to threats to our safety, whether real or imagined. The most primitive response system causes us to freeze and go numb when threatened, but are immobilized and unable to escape it.

At the middle layer, if our brains perceive a potentially escapable threat, the vagus nerve will shut down this primitive system and activate the“fight or flight” response. 

At the highest level, if our brains perceive the environment is safe, the vagus will shut down the fight or flight response, turn off the autonomic nervous system, send a message that we are safe and trigger the social engagement system. Our heart rate then slows down. This system operates unconsciously and involves the muscles of the face and inner ear, affecting how we respond to the prosodic and non verbal aspects of communication when people speak to us.

Not only can we soften the edges of our own hearts through heart intelligence; we can also help soften the edges of other’s hearts. Because of the connections between the heart, inner ear and facial movements we can have a significant impact on another’s heart response through conscious awareness and moderation of our facial expressions and speech patterns.

Using our heart intelligence not only involves using the knowledge of neuroscience, it also requires self-awareness and acts of compassion, empathy and forgiveness to help inoculate us from arrogance, righteousness, judgments, anger, and retaliation.

Softening the edges of our hearts raises the question  – how willing are we to open ourselves to others, take off our protective gear and assume ownership for our flaws.? Human hearts are fragile. Can we relate from a place of compassion when others’ fears drive behaviors intended to emotionally hurt us?

When we communicate from a place of authenticity, genuinely share our feelings with a gentleness that takes to heart how vulnerable we all are, people become less defensive and more receptive.

Acting from a heart place doesn’t mean we can’t establish boundaries that protect us from unkind behaviors, but it does mean that we don’t have to respond to others in ways that shut off the heart response and miss the opportunity to transform ourselves and others.

Henry David Thoreau captured the “magic” of the potential heart connection when he said,Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Engaging The Unengaged: Part 2

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In Part 1 of Engaging the Unengaged, I refer to the Gallup State of the American Workforce Survey that revealed that “America is largely a nation of working automatons, with most people not feeling emotional ties to what they do and sizable numbers actively seeking to sabotage their colleagues and managers.” 

I cited some astounding statistics (hopefully, not too many) that suggested the issues and causal factors underlying disengagement.  A major component contributing to engagement that explicitly and implicitly surfaced in the study was relational dynamics. In other words, “people skills,” which is the focus of this article.

Gallup places the spotlight on managers and leaders whose weak people skills fail to help others feel connected to their work and good about themselves. What are these people skills that not only relate to others, but to us as well?

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, here are a few of the people skills that I find missing in many managers that directly affect employee engagement. Continue reading

Engaging The Unengaged: Part 1– Some Facts

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In his book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul ) CEO Howard Schultz writes,  Like crafting the perfect cup of coffee, creating an engaging, respectful, trusting workplace culture is not the result of any one thing. It’s a combination of intent, process, and heart, a trio that must constantly be fine-tuned.”

Employee engagement is now a critical factor in moving employees to “go the extra mile” in terms of their work effort. However, studies suggest that businesses seem to be at a critical tipping point in their ability to maintain engagement over time.

An illuminating new Gallup poll found that only 30% of all full-time workers in America are involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to their work. In other words, engaged – and  70% of  all U.S. workers are not reaching their full potential. According to the study, one significant causal factor for employee disengagement is that employee’s hearts are not into their work.  About 18% are “actively disengaged,” meaning they’ve gone beyond just checking out mentally and could even be harming workplace relationships and colleagues’ accomplishments through emotional contagion.

This goes to the essence of engagement –  “Employees are engaged only to the extent that they are emotionally available to be so,” which ties directly to their willingness to go the extra mile for their company. This may seem obvious, but it is not—at least not to managers who are still focused on conventional managerial tactics as the solution in their attempt to create engagement. Traditional managers tend to apply pressure when they perceive disengagement, ignoring the reality of emotions and their effect on people’s abilities to be engaged.

Depending on the emotions that are triggered at work, employees will either be less available or more available to be fully engaged in their work.  The feelings themselves determine the path that will be taken.   Emotions are always present…and until the emotional component is addressed, employees cannot fully engage. This is the major missing link in many efforts to engage or re-engage workers.  Too many organizations and managers still go to the old employee perks goody bag to solve long-term problems with questionable short-term solutions. This is not to say that these incentives are wholly ineffective, but without substantive changes in employee relationships and cultural environment, they offer little more than temporary distraction from deeper problems. Continue reading