We wanted to bring something new to your understanding of unlocking engagement in your organization and there is a strong scientific foundation that supports our work in talent management. It is the fascinating science of “polyvagal theory” coined by Dr Stephen Porges that has contributed to a great understanding of the importance of emotional safety in the workplace. It’s important because there are real costs associated with social abuse in the workplace which result in absenteeism, presenteeism, medical and legal costs as well as increased churn in recruiting. The more we know about creating conducive environments for innovation and work synergy, the better we have a handle on creating highly successful organizations.
Dr Porges, a pioneering neuroscientist with breakthrough research and theory defined emotional safety in terms of a set of three subsystems outside your brain (yes, outside). The vagus nerve is in fact the largest nerve of all, hooking into just about every other major organ: heart, lungs, brain, spleen, liver, bladder etc. It does not act in a singular fashion but as three coordinated systems and only one of these is active at a time, with the other two essentially shut down. The switch that triggers the interchange of these systems is your threat sensor as Dr Porges puts it, a sensory input with qualities of safe, dangerous or life-threateningly dangerous.
In the first case where our sensory input suggests we are safe, the most evolved aspect of the polyvagal system is activated. It has hooks into the heart, larynx, face, sinus and ears. The voice is well controlled for articulation and for emotional nuance. The face muscles light up for gestures and communication. And amazingly, the inner ear contracts so you can distinguish human voice from other noises more easily. This is the state to be in for connecting with others, communicating successfully and with a high degree of engagement in activities supporting self actualization and response to others.
However if an internal or external threat is perceived, the “safe” subsystem is shut down as well as one other. With two of three subsystems primed to respond to threat it would seem we are predisposed to detecting danger! In dangerous situations we are set into fight or flight mode. And when extreme danger is present, again internally or externally, actual immobilization can occur along with reduction in heart rate.
So in the world of work and under the stress of goals, deadlines, overwhelming work loads and peer pressure of competition from colleagues, it is imperative that team leads, managers and leaders understand that there is a state we need to achieve in order that we can do our best work. That state is one of emotional safety. We have 2 keys for survival and 1 key for thriving in normalcy. We are not likely to be jumped by bengal tigers these days, although I have seen one unfortunate Youtube video but it is more likely that information presenting a comparative heightened threat will shut you down at work. News of change, news of challenge, acquisition, divestiture, reorganization, financial cut backs and layoffs can have a significant impact on your innovators and talented contributors.
Your mission is therefore to manage the information, translate it into understandable knowledge that can be absorbed safely and to be sensitive to signs of shut down, immobilization and other signs of fight/flight. There is a wealth of information on this site to help. Perhaps begin with the article on the 5 behaviors exhibited by caring leaders?
We're thrilled to have your interest in our work and we invite you to join our mission of creating work places where the people as well as the company, both flourish. We welcome your support and participation. To find out more about this just reach out to us here!"