We’re Mammals First

by Susie Amundson

Last week, I attended a meeting at a new birth cottage in town.  It was gorgeous. Rounded walls, post and beam wood, river rock and tiled floors, and even an oval-shaped birthing tub. Right here in Homer. 

It almost made me want to have a baby.  OK. Almost. And let’s face it, that bus left the station a few years back. 

I did ooh-and-ahh at such a sacred space. And how the founders envisioned and created a nurturing, secure, and comforting place for babies to enter the world.  

But that was only half of it. Or a quarter. What made the difference in this space were the three midwives and their calm, strong, and empathic presence.   You can’t tell me a baby wouldn’t feel that vibe when she wriggled out of mama. 

So . . . It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking about the workplaces we create and the leaders and managers who are there. 

According to multiple surveys, 65 to 75% of employees in any given organization report that the worst aspect of their job is their immediate supervisor.  That’s cringe-worthy data.  And Gallup found that one in two employees convey that they have left a job to escape their boss at some point in their careers.  (I’m raising my hand twice on that one.) How about you?

What the Science Says

Employees want their managers to communicate regularly with them, provide purposeful coaching, note and appreciate their individual strengths, and help clarify workplace expectations.

In other words, connect and invest in employees in a meaningful, authentic, and reliable way. And when we do, employees are more engaged defined as emotionally committed, high performing, efficient, collaborative, and innovative. Leading to better outcomes in the organization. No brainer.

When You’re Not Serving CAKE

We’re mammals first. And though every workplace shoulders an overabundance of planning, orchestrating, communicating, and networking, the mammals come first.  They’re the most important resource of any organization.

And my question for leaders is “how can you help staff be and keep regulated?’ In other words, how can you help them move or stay in that Calm, Alert, Kindred, and Engaged (CAKE) zone where their performance soars, they problem solve better, learn more quickly, and their pleasant and flowing moments overshadow the chaotic ones?

As mammals we instinctively realize when a work situation is not psychologically safe or when our boss has turned away from a connected collegial alliance with us. It’s threatening. The physical sensation of alarm goes off. You might feel a pit in your stomach. A racing of your heart. A flush.

Your inner narrative of sense making revs up: “What did I do? I should just go in and tell him off. Oh damn, I’m staying under the radar. This place sucks. I need to get out of here.” 

The Biggest Leadership Job: Co-regulation

Leaders need to focus on their own CAKE first.  OK, it’s a little messy. 

Then it’s easier developing a psychologically safe culture where it’s OK to admit mistakes, ask for help, embrace “good enough,” offer authentic encouragement, tune in and listen deeply, and give the benefit of the doubt. And also kindly hold boundaries.

It’s from this mammalian neural platform in the workplace that co-regulation occurs.  When the leader is eating CAKE, another is able to share it and actually absorb it.  When the leader flies off the handle or regularly sequesters, the CAKE flops all around. 

Think about it. As a leader when you are mindfully present, composed, and relational, you and your staff together co-create an experience of connectedness. And it’s this connected mammalian relationship, which allows for more focus, calm, and energy in the workplace. It’s from this shared CAKE plate where great things get done.

Wired To Connect

So whether you’re a CEO, a school teacher, trail crewmember, board president, program manager, or fisherman, we’re just like that baby wiggling out of mama. We are inherently wired to connect and form safe and trusted alliances together. 

We’re mammals first! May you honor it in your workplace culture and beyond.

Sending you a delicious plate of CAKE this holiday season,

Susie