To reimagine the future of work we need to connect with nature and something that is innate; the power to organise ourselves. As we begin to truly value our differences, we see demonstrations there are more human ways of organising to get work done. We’re witnessing a growing awareness as to how we change the way we organise for the better. We’re at a time now where this shift matters given the noticeable decline in wellbeing and productivity in our workplaces.

A signpost to the future

The scientific concept of emergence provides us with a vision and a signpost to the future. An example of emergence in nature is the phenomenon you see when watching a flock of birds fly in unison or a shoal of fish move in synchrony. As we observe them, they appear to move as one larger organism. Whilst we might think there is one leader that others are following, it’s actually a bottom-up phenomenon. All the organisms are leading and behaving in harmony. They appear to be operating from one mind.

Now imagine a world of work where everyone can lead… with opportunities for each individual to apply their strengths as needed, at different times, and in different ways. Imagine a future closer to the concept of emergence, where people have autonomy and yet, are moving with unity.

Before we contemplate the idea of emergence further let’s understand what’s getting in the way.

What’s getting in the way?

It’s difficult for any of us to see a new future when we’re trapped by the emotions and feelings that accompany our existing reality. For many people, this reality is stress, job insecurity, frustration with peers or colleagues, worry about money, and uncertainty about organisational change. We’re witnessing people living in a state of survival, which essentially means they’re living in a state of stress. This state makes it very difficult for people to imagine a new future.

Let’s look at what happens to us physiologically when we find ourselves in survival mode.

When our primitive fight or flight nervous system is turned on we react as if we are being chased by a predator. Our pupils dilate so we can see better. Our heart rate increases so we can run, fight or hide. Blood is sent to our arms and legs. The nervous system produces adrenaline, and circulation moves out of our rational brain and is instead relayed to our primitive brain. Now we have less capacity to think creatively. We rely solely on our instincts to keep us safe. It’s not a time to learn and create, it’s a time to run or fight.

Our stress response

Now of course we aren’t being chased by predators in the office or on the production floor! However, the same biological response is being turned on each time we’re triggered by something in our environment. We might experience stress during a challenging interaction with a customer, a disagreement with a co-worker, or simply being cut up in traffic on our way to the office.

For many of us, we are being triggered constantly. However, our biological response to stress is only designed for the short term. Most organisms in nature can tolerate adverse conditions in the short term by fighting, hiding or fleeing. They return to balance when the event is over. No organism in nature can endure living in emergency mode for extended periods of time. However, given the speed and intensity with which we now work and live, many of us operate in a constant state of survival. We’re repeatedly turning on our defence response and when we can’t turn it off, we experience long-term stress and anxiety.

Addicted to the chemicals of stress

Once we become accustomed to these stress chemicals and the negative feelings they create, they become our norm. We prioritise and react from our survival state. However, there’s a catch to living and working in survival for longer than we were designed to – we become addicted to it because they make us feel alive.

The chemicals of stress create a range of negative emotions within us. These can vary from anger, shame, frustration, judgement, guilt, powerlessness and insecurity. In not knowing what to do with these feelings we subconsciously begin to associate them with all the problems and conditions in our environment. We blame the poor work conditions, difficult colleagues or customers, a lack of pay and benefits, or the changes being made in the organisation.


Working in this emotional state leads us to become self-involved and self-serving which isn’t a surprise given the chemicals of stress were designed for self-preservation. We blame others and our circumstances for the feelings we are experiencing. This is a normal biological response to stress. It’s our body’s way of returning us back to some level of order. However, our lack of awareness about how our brains and bodies function leads us to adopt unhelpful and dysfunctional behaviours.

This is why developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence in organisations is so important to the evolution of work. There’s a need for us all to improve our ability to own our unhelpful behaviours and learn to self-regulate. This doesn’t mean suppressing our feelings. It’s more about developing our ability to feel whatever comes up, whilst making the choice to allow the best version of ourselves to remain in the driving seat.

Our emerging future

To bring about a new future we must take the time to understand our human nature and learn to connect with the way we feel. As we do so, we’ll demonstrate to ourselves and each other, that there’s a more human, emergent way of relating and organising.

In this blog, we’ve explored what’s needed from an individual perspective; greater self-awareness. In our subsequent blogs, we’ll explore how a shift in leadership style can support people to move out of survival and inspire them towards a new, more human future of work.

Click here to read Part 2 of this blog.

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