Why Organizations Need To Embrace Awe & Big-Picture Thinking

We live in one of the best times in human history. Today, we’re seeing a surge in exponential technologies like AI, 3D Printing and nanotechnology, that are enabling people and organizations to address some of the biggest challenges we face.

These changes mean that how we work is changing. Currently, according to Gallup findings, a staggering 68% of employees are disengaged at work. But in the near future, thanks to advances in exponential technologies, our work lives will no longer be ridden by mundane, routine, mind-numbingly boring tasks but instead be filled with a deeper sense of purpose, meaning and satisfaction. To bring us closer to this exciting future, we need to create awe-inspiring work environments and prepare employees today to take a cosmic perspective, drive innovation and create long-lasting impact. Awe could allow us to embrace non-robotized skills like creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem-solving. Tapping into the psychological benefits of awe, and implementing awe within corporations could be key to transforming the landscape of work.

Defining Awe

What is “awe”?

Awe is a fundamental human emotion. It is the sublime sensation that we experience when we encounter something of such vastness that it fills us with wonder and amazement and completely alters our perspective. It’s what astronomers experience when they view Earth from space and what some individuals experience when they stand on top of a mountain. It’s the experience of being in the presence of someone we deeply love or admire.

In 2003, Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner wrote a pioneering article in an effort to define awe. They suggest that two aspects are central to all experiences of awe: one is the perception of vastness (figurative or literal), and the other is a need for accommodation, which refers to the altering of mental frames according to new information.

The profound implications of awe should not be understated; it has the capacity to reshape our understanding of the world. According to Keltner, there are evolutionary reasons for why we feel awe. Studies have demonstrated that awe leads to enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, increased life satisfaction, and induces altruistic and prosocial behavior.

But as Keltner and Haidt discovered, perhaps the most fascinating byproduct of awe is that it transcends ones understanding of the world. What this means is that when one perceives phenomena that are larger than oneself, one needs to expand ones mental structures and belief systems to accommodate for these experiences. This opens the mind up to new ways of thinking, processing and understanding. As a result, an experience of awe can help us dissolve our ego and encourages us to take a cosmic perspective.

The Overview Effect & Taking A Cosmic Perspective

One of the most widely reported and overwhelming feelings of awe has been experienced by astronomers who have viewed Earth from space. These astronomers experience a shift in perspective characterized by what we now call the overview effect. The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness that comes from viewing the Earth as a pale blue dot amidst the vastness of the universe.

When viewing the Earth from this distance, one feels an intense sense of awe. The fragility and unity of life on Earth is starkly clear. From 6.4 billion kilometers away, all we see is a pale blue dot. Many things that we deem important on Earth lose their significance — our differences, our daily anxieties, our fears, our successes, and our failures.

Astronauts have described the overview effect as a profoundly sobering, humbling experience. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this pale blue dot becomes both obvious and imperative.

When taking a cosmic perspective and recognizing our place in the universe, we then have the capacity to zoom out and see decision-making in a different light. It means that when contemplating future corporate strategy, decision-makers will no longer only consider the primary effect of something; instead, they’re empowered to consider the big picture — the secondary and tertiary effects of decisions.

The Skills of the Future

In recent research published in the APA, awe has been found to be associated with a sense that one is part of something larger than oneself, typically larger categories like a community, a culture, or the human species. It triggers a metaphorical smallness of the self, known as the “small self”. When taking into consideration the grand scheme of things, this could then encourage people to take bold actions, thereby driving creativity and innovation even within established, traditional organizations.

Because we live in technologically exponential times, futurists and education experts now consider that the critical skills for the future involve skills that can’t be robotized — skills such as collaboration, people management, critical thinking, creativity, and complex problem-solving. Because of its altruistic side-effects, awe doesn’t just encourage us to take a big-picture perspective, but can boost our ability to work well with other people. When we’re less concerned with individual success and more geared toward collective problem-solving, we can drive innovation and work together toward a collective concern, such as addressing global issues our planet faces. On a day-to-day basis, this means that we can take an empathetic and more effective approach to conflict resolution and problem-solving, thereby improving our work environments.

Practical Methods of Approaching Awe

Within the workplace, a shift in mindset can be encountered by understanding our place in the universe. Though the overview effect is something that only a few members of society have had the chance to experience, emerging technologies like immersive VR could bring it to the masses. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX are working hard to make space tourism as commonplace as global tourism.

The experience of awe can also achieved through collaborating and sharing awe-inspiring stories, anecdotes, and experiences with our fellow employees. However, most importantly, something we can remind ourselves of is that we live in profoundly awe-inspiring times. Despite the many challenges we face, the sheer growth that our society has encountered over the past couple of decades has been astounding, to say the least. With technology expanding at the rate that it is, the future, though riddled with uncertainties, is exciting. How we leverage technology for the greater good is dependent on us; but enabling people to reap the psychological benefits of awe could be key to unlocking the potential for a desirable future.