Embodiment and the Future of Work

Why do I keep talking about embodiment in the work place when I could simply approach people in their private sphere? I believe that (1) we keep trying to dissociate from who we are at work, and (2) we can’t make sustainable change if we avoid organisations and the role of work in people’s lives.

How is it for you, do you feel that you are fully you when you are working? Or are you a little part, who is still you, but just the “professional persona”? Or do you even carry several “professional parts”, who collectively make you who you are at work?

I definitely have that! Some years ago, when I was working as trainer and consultant, but also teaching salsa, one of my colleagues with whom I had been working for more than 3 years came to a class of mine. She couldn’t be more surprised! Instead of the quiet, reserved colleague she knew, she was introduced to a loud, cheeky entertainer. Was I pretending? No. But these were 2 sides of me that showed up in different contexts. And that served me for different reasons.

Sometimes, this professional side of ours means that we leave parts out. For instance, someone who is not comfortable communicating with their team, may feel like they can’t express their own views, and eventually this may turn into not even questioning where they stand in what is decided. They just do what they are told. Often, the discomfort will stay locked in the body, even if not conscious. And maybe even building itself up, showing up in how this person will relate (or not) to others, or be seen as an insensitive machine. It may even show up in physical pain or disease.

There’s a paradox where we feel like we are someone different in our workplace and despite it, that’s where we show our most engrained patterns.

We believe that private matters are not to be brought to work. and we often also believe that we can leave work issues at the front door when we go home (would the remote work equivalent be “when we turn off the laptop”?) When we look deeper, we tend to replicate in our workplace the same patterns we show anywhere else. Of course, as in any other moment, our patterns tend to show themselves more clearly when we are tired and under resourced. When not even our inner critic can prevent us from going into a reactive mode. And suddenly we’re not the wise adult dealing with a conflict, but the young child who doesn’t know (yet) how to deal with frustration.

And then came change…

Many new organisation designs have been being implemented in companies throughout the world. We hear of agile, holacracy, teal organisations, and several other solutions to transform organisations from machines into organisms. They all try to fulfil the needs of stakeholders by being more adaptive and generative.

Because they mirror organic structures, there’s the assumption that transition should also feel natural. Why would it be hard to shift into self-managed, self-organised flat structures? Don’t we all know how to do this? The answer is no!

Most of us arrive to these structures with a life-long experience of being confronted with hierarchies, lack of transparency and external motivation. We need to relearn. We need to find new reference points, inside us and collectively.

That’s where embodiment comes to place. Relearning patterns that are so deep into how we behave in the world requires more than just a cognitive understanding of what these transformations mean. How much does it serve us to establish that everyone has a field of responsibility and authority, if in the end we feel like we need to check with the CEO and have their validation (as we used to do beforehand)?

If we reduce external structures e.g. by flattening or completely abolishing fixed hierarchies, we lose important orientations for our own behaviour. This leads to fear and insecurity and accordingly we have to build up security elsewhere: inside ourselves.

Joana Breidenbach, New Work Needs Inner Work

“Extraordinary things begin to happen when we dare to bring all of who we are to work.”


The role of embodiment in the future of work

What do I mean with being embodied at work? I don’t only mean that there is a mind and a body coming with me to the office. I mean that mind and body (and soul) are equally me, who I am, operating together in how I navigate my days, what drives my behaviour and my thoughts. And why is this relevant?

By being more embodied, we become more aware of what and when something is happening in/to us. When we are more aware, we gain the capacity to consciously make choices. With spaces for conscious practice, it also allows us to rewire our automatic reactions, and change our patterns.

Is it as easy as reading a book? Not really… but with awareness and practice, we are able to improve our capacity to be present to ourselves and to others, which may also bring a light to the motivations behind our thoughts and actions.

If we’re inviting people to systems where they need to be more present, and not only operational pieces of an engine thought by others, we need to make sure that everyone can be authentic, whole, and aligned with their purpose, That everyone is ready to be a member of a human system.

Otto Scharmer, in Theory U, mentions the 3 voices that hinder our ability to step into our highest self: the Voice of Judgement, the Voice of Cynicism, and the Voice of Fear. Distinguishing whether we’re moving in a certain direction because we’re avoiding something that makes us afraid or because we believe it’s the direction to go can make a big difference in the collective journey of a team.

Also in Theory U, we talk of stepping into the future with an open mind (curiosity), an open heart (compassion), and an open will (courage). These are all words that we can relate to, but are you able to recognise these emotions when they’re showing up? Would you be able to describe how curiosity feels like in your body, or what triggers it? Or, on the other hand, what usually triggers your resistance when you’re in a meeting?

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(c) featured photo by Laurent Ziegler