We Are Nature Not Machines

We Are Nature Not Machines

We Are Nature Not Machines 1000 667 Brook Thorndycraft

I recently took a few days off, and found myself passing a lot of the time a bit weepy and out of sorts. The extra time opened up space to pay attention to the personal and world stresses and traumas of over two years of pandemic, financial crisis, increasing inequality, and nonstop uncertainty. This is good. We need to have the space to process the chaos of this world. Then the Wednesday after I returned to work, I woke to news of the newest school massacre in the United States. But that day there wasn’t time to feel my feelings. I pulled myself together, and got to work. 

But it’s not possible to shove down only some emotions and not all of them. I drafted an email to a client who was having a hard time at work and needed some support, but I couldn’t access empathy. The email sounded like a robot wrote it. Luckily I noticed and didn’t send it.

I know I’m not alone in having to dissociate a bit from grief, rage, and overwhelm to keep going. Almost everyone I know has been in this state for a long long time. We are nature, but we have been trained to work like machines.

Sometimes we need to push, other times we need to slow down.

I really appreciate Valarie Kaur‘s metaphor for social change as being like birth. There are moments when we need to push hard, BUT there are also moments when we need to rest and breathe. We cannot push constantly. Yet It often feels almost impossible to slow down enough to just be a living being.

If you are a leader in an organization, you can do something about this, and you should. It is better for you and everyone who works for you. When we place urgency and deadlines before human wellbeing, we end up with major problems of burnout, turnover, conflict, toxicity … the list goes on. Even more, big commitments to JEDI, decolonization, and healthy workplaces often flounder and fail because there isn’t space and time given to do the deep personal and interpersonal work that is  necessary to really change how we relate, what we value, how we act, and how we lead.

Ask yourself “where does my need to always push come from?” In our learning journey Re-imagining Power:  Gender, Leadership, and Change, my co-facilitator, Louise Pitre, and I unpack the metanarratives of power that we have inherited and how they translate into leadership behaviours that negatively impact the organizations and teams we lead. One of the dominant stories about power is extraction and domination. If we push, if we apply pressure, if we just keep going, if we can break through, then we will get what we need to achieve success.  We just need to keep taking and extracting from ourselves and our colleagues to get the organization to accomplish its mission.  

I know this sounds harsh.  Most leaders don’t consciously think this way and yet, we find ourselves doing it.

Outer systems like our current funding models, philanthropy approaches, and risk management systems, to name just a few, force leaders into rigid boxes that perpetuate this power story. 

A workplace is an ecosystem

There is another metaphor for leadership power that is about creating, tending and caring for healthy ecosystems. What if the goal was not to push but to grow in regenerative and life-affirming ways (Thanks Ecocycles and adrienne maree brown for bringing this metaphor to the forefront)?

Question your assumptions about when it’s actually necessary to push. If you’re feeling pressured by the bottom line, ask yourself where is that pressure coming from? By pushing through, what is the cost to you, your organization, and the clients you serve? What if you could push less in exchange for a healthier workplace that attracts and retains the people you most need because people actually want to work there? Would that be worth it? What if your team could develop trusting relationships that support deep collaboration and creativity? Would that be worth it? And what if it could help you feel more aligned with what you really value? What if it could be one small step toward shifting this destruction cycle we are in? Would that feel worth it? 

If you’re feeling pressured by your bosses, board, or funders, I get that.  It’s a larger systemic problem, and we can’t fix it alone.  But there are probably still things you can do to shift the narrative in smaller ways.  You can:

  • Examine and heal the ways you have internalized the idea that timelines are urgent and your value is based on productivity. There is outside pressure, but when we believe it we add to it. 
  • Build your capacity to set boundaries and challenge unrealistic expectations. Find opportunities to say no or to advocate for slowing down when you need to.
  • Seek out other people in your workplace who feel the same and find ways to support each other to set limits and be upfront about projects that are too big or timelines that are too short. 
  • Remember that needing space to breathe is not the problem. You are a beautiful part of nature who deserves to live in balance and to thrive. 

If you would like to explore how you can create the systems change you know is needed in your work and organization, we have a space for you to come and be with other leaders to explore how to reimagine power.