| | |

Awe at work drops reactivity

Photo of Women Laughing

Conflict at work – whether remote or in-person – is pervasive.

Consider these stats: 85% of American workers experience conflict in the workplace, according to a recent workplace study by Zippia. Almost 3 hours a day might be spent in conflict. And how do over half of workers cope with conflict? Avoidance.

Living in a constant state of fight-or-flight can be devastating. It drains our energy, distorts our well-being, hijacks our focus, stifles our creativity, and increases our sense of isolation.

I’ve long been curious about how leaders, managers, entrepreneurs, and workers can break these automatic reactions without bypassing difficult conversations and issues.

Is it too simplistic to think that finding delight in ordinary things or looking up at the sky could change how we handle conflict? If you’re skeptical, consider the science.

Cognitive Skills: Hard but Sustainable

Cognitive skills aren’t “soft” skills; they’re some of the hardest to develop due to entrenched patterns. But they are also the most sustainable, benefiting you, your team, and humanity for the next uncertain decade.

Conflict Loops

Conflicts often trigger our most basic instincts. First, our body’s defensive wiring kicks in: heartbeat increases, blood rushes, and our fight-or-flight response activates. Then, our emotions flare up almost immediately. Finally, our thinking becomes distorted and rigid, reinforcing what we already believe to be true.

In this state, it’s normal for people to become entrenched, sticking to their opinions or versions of the facts. Or, as the study suggests, we just avoid conflict altogether.

Breaking the Loop

Emerging scientific studies are exploring what kinds of experiences can disrupt these escalating effects. Interestingly, it’s not happiness, joy, or amusement that help—but awe and wonder.

Associate professor of social psychology at Arizona State University and psychologist Lani Shiota’s research highlights awe and wonder’s powerful effects on body and mind:

  • Physiologically: Awe and wonder reduce the fight-or-flight response during moments of surprise, confusion, or tension.
  • Cognitively: These emotions help people remember facts about emotional experiences without personal biases.
  • Resilience: They make people less susceptible to weak persuasive arguments.
  • Generosity: They foster more generosity and pro-social behavior.

These effects extend beyond personal growth to have social implications. Experiences of wonder offer cognitive clarity and connection like no other emotional experience.

Awe and wonder ground us in the present, diminish self-centered thoughts, and open our attention to others and our surroundings. This expands our mental resources, allowing us to think more flexibly.

Practical Steps to Foster Awe

  • Notice Small Wonders: Appreciate simple things like raindrops on a sidewalk or the big picture of how people work together.
  • Engage with Nature: Spend time outdoors to feel alive.
  • Gain New Perspectives: See a co-worker’s past to enrich their present, or let a film or novel broaden your view of human experiences.

These moments, though fleeting, have lasting ripple effects. By learning to notice, reflect on, and foster these experiences, you can increase your sense of wonder.

Changing Your Default Settings

With enough practice, you can train your sympathetic nervous system to be less reactive.

A Different Perspective

Thinker David White once said, “I’ve always felt a person’s beliefs are the least interesting things about them. Your identity actually depends more on how much attention you’re paying to things or people other than yourself.”

Maybe you’re not defined by your beliefs about various topics. Instead, you might be defined by how you think about people and ideas that don’t fit your paradigm, how open you are to different realities, how you can authentically engage with people holding different beliefs, and how flexible your thinking is.

In short, it’s interesting how often you wonder about and imagine the lives and viewpoints of people vastly different from yours.

Try This

  1. Daily Delight: Do one simple thing each day to feel delight, wonder, or awe. The sky is always there. Notice how you feel and write down each moment to help your memory.
  2. Track Reactivity: This week, observe your reactions to something you read or hear. Just tracking this might surprise you.

See what happens by tracking these two different experiences. Are you more aware of your reactions? More present?

No expectations. Just experimentation.

In the near-future, we’ll unpack recent studies here as well as at my column at Psychology Today to illustrate how leaders and teams can shift workplace culture dynamics with wonder interventions and awe interventions.

To stay in the loop, get The Wonder Dispatch delivered free, and connect with me at LinkedIn.

Be well, and thanks for running with me,


Share This Article:

Share This Article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *