Why Earthworms Matter in Organizations

by Susie Amundson

 It snowed last week. Argh. No one was ready. And my gardens weren’t composted.

Well that might not be big stuff for you all but I like those Earthworms to wiggle and dance around and poop in my soil as much as possible by next spring. Their presence is so rich and inviting for new life.

By spring, what once were our eggshells and carrot greens and apple cores-turned compost becomes a nurturing culture for my perennials. Nothing like fertile ground for roots to thrive, plants to grow, and blossoms to flourish. (See compost pile in photo below. I know, the Earthworms got a nice view.)

In the same way, it got me thinking about organizations and the plants they grow. People. And the earthworms there.

 The brain science is clear. When organizations create a nourishing culture, its employees perform and relate better. Think of a workplace that is so fertile that all its people are CALM, ALERT, and ENGAGED.

OK, you can’t? Well it’s a stretch for me too in some of my past chapters. Since most of us have experienced the flip side – where the Earthworms didn’t come to play – we’ve known frenzy, frazzle, overwhelm, and dread in the workplace.

But the research is simple. When employees are in a calm, alert, and engaged neural state, the organization benefits.

And so do its people. They learn faster. They bounce back from stress more quickly. Their level of engagement with their own job increases. They enjoy better quality of relationships at work. They demonstrate more creativity. And they even boost their co-workers’ productivity!

It’s from a neurophysiological state of calm, alert, and engaged where effectiveness in organizations takes place. Undeniably.

How come? The workplace (or even your chaotic community meeting) is a social system. And everyone’s mid-brain is in constant search mode for implicit or known psychological threats and safety in that social system.

Here’s how it works. Andy happily comes to work and finds that his boss just hired someone else to do part of Andy’s job. No one told Andy until now. And so what’s the initial reaction in Andy’s neurobiology? He’s threatened.

Immediately, Andy thinks “WTH?” But not before his mid-brain detected a threat (whoa!) and called in a host of neurotransmitters that ignited his flight or fight response. Andy’s chest gets a little constricted. His heart rate goes up. His breathing shallows out. It’s now he thinks, “WTH?”

Note: This shift happens in micro-seconds and a change in neurophysiology can almost go unnoticed. Almost.

For most of the Andys out there, they start trying to make meaning out of the situation. (After all, there is the mortgage and kids.) Making sense not from a place of calm, alert, and engaged.

But from a place of worry and concern. It’s here that Andy’s thinking and problem solving plummets. His decision-making skills spin down. His creativity drops on its knees. He ponders what action to take. And instead of adeptly focusing on his work, he is stewing on the new hire most of the morning.

We can name what went specifically wrong in the Andy scenario. But what I know about organizations, this is about culture. Not just a missed point of communication.

So the million-dollar question unfolds. How do you shift the culture of your organization and what Earthworms should you bring to it? How do you grow a fertile culture for employees to be calm, engaged, and committed most of their workday? And stay out of the worried, concerned strain? That place where work performance circles the drain.

In the next posts here at Wise at Work, we are going to dig up the Earthworms that build a highly effective workplace culture. We will use a social systems lens and a neurobiological approach to uncover ways for you to strengthen the organization as well as contribute to its most valuable resource, its people.

If you want a sneak peak, see here – Neurobiology@Work.

Meanwhile here in Homer, the sun surprised us this week and warmed things up. Compost. Earthworms. Locals.

Winter dissolved. Autumn rebounded. And for now, we are all dancing and wiggling together in the sun.

May each of you experience amazing thanksgiving in the weeks ahead!

Susie