Experiences of awe can be rare, especially at work. But they come with a wide range of tangible benefits for ethical leadership.
Imagine someone was hired to follow you around and record everything you said about your work. What would they hear?
If you're like most people, your recording would contain many statements about scarcity: not enough time, money, energy, motivation, and other resources to manage your many competing projects, deadlines, and demands. Rarest of all would be statements about vastness, beauty, plenitude, and the emotion associated with these qualities: awe. Yet research suggests that awe can bring surprising benefits to the workplace, if we allow it. It has the power to ease anxiety, enhance relationships, improve our decisions, and even encourage ethical behavior. Here’s how it works.
The Science of Awe
In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt surveyed the way awe has been defined in religion, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. They concluded that we experience awe when we encounter something vast and abundant, something that is beyond our grasp. Encountering something beyond our comprehension, we are pushed beyond our typical ways of thinking and feeling. Experiences of awe may be "fleeting and rare,” they found, but nevertheless they can "change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”
In the years since Keltner and Haidt defined awe, other researchers have provided a fuller picture of awe’s effects. It turns out that awe produces many benefits that we may not immediately recognize:
- Awe reduces our anxieties about the scarcity of time.
- Awe strengthens our connections with others.
- Awe enhances our critical thinking by alerting us to the gaps in our knowledge, sparking more curiosity and better learning.
- Awe promotes altruistic behavior.
These four benefits of awe support ethical behavior. When we are less overwhelmed by time pressures, we can make better ethical decisions. Strong relationships can offer new perspectives and emotional support when facing ethical challenges. Greater curiosity and enhanced critical thinking expands our understanding and deepens our analysis of ethical situations. Finally, acting with generosity and fairness helps us move beyond our own self-interest in navigating ethical issues.
In one study, researchers asked participants to write about a time they experienced awe. After engaging in this activity, the participants were more likely to volunteer at a charity. Another study showed that people who are more disposed toward experiences of awe were more fair in distributing raffle tickets. The researchers also took participants out to a grove of tall trees to give them a real-life experience of awe, and they found that staring up at the trees made the participants more likely to help out when an experimenter dropped a box of pens—an accident that was carefully staged for the purpose of the experiment.
"By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self," the researchers write, "awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.” Whether they were simply recalling a time they experienced awe, watched awe-inducing footage, or gazed in awe at a natural scene, these experiences made participants kinder and more generous and even more effective in ethical decision-making.
Put awe in practice at work
Here are four tips you can use to bring the benefits of awe into your organization:
Take a nature break.
Many of us have a case of what Richard Louv calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Even if you're not on a lavish corporate campus with a living roof garden—like Facebook's headquarters—you can still connect with nature through a walk on a break or even a walking meeting.
Admire excellence in others.
Another source of awe lies all around us each day at work: Other people. By finding and sharing stories of excellence in others, we not only produce awe in ourselves; we can also tap into a form of moral awe called "elevation" that is a key driving force behind ethical leadership.
Design your environment to elicit awe.
Visual art, music, film, books, and even virtual reality have all been shown to be reliable sources of awe. They are most effective when they challenge our typical, familiar ways of seeing the world and force us to reframe what we know or think is possible.
Take a vacation.
Given the demands of the contemporary workplace, making time and space for awe will often prove difficult. But time off from work offers an additional chance to recharge and reconnect with the sources of awe in our lives. Quite often, we will be able to bring the benefits of awe back into the workplace. Unfortunately, Americans only take about half of the paid time off that is available to them. Leaders can help by setting the example that taking a vacation is okay.
As Notre Dame psychologist Darcia Narvaez points out, "we receive continuous and daily reports about [wealth] in business news," but in business we experience too little of other forms of wealth, such as "the riches of extended kin and non-kin networks, cooperative living with fellow community members, and access to landscapes of natural beauty and biodiversity." It's one reason why over half of the U.S. workforce is not engaged at work and 13% spend their days actively disengaged (in misery). By prioritizing awe, you can help yourself and others move away from feelings of scarcity and become more engaged, more effective, and more ethical.
“Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, Cognition and Emotion 17, No. 2 (2003).
“Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being,” Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker, Psychological Science 23, No. 10 (2012).
“Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” Paul K. Piff et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108, No. 6 (2015).
"Revitalizing Human Virtue by Restoring Organic Morality," Darcia Narvaez, Journal of Moral Education 45, No. 3 (2016).