Low Workplace Engagement? Use the Sublime to Get Unstuck

That's not a valid work email account. Please enter your work email (e.g. you@yourcompany.com)
Please enter your work email
(e.g. you@yourcompany.com)


Without a doubt, employee engagement is crucial for the success of any workplace. In fact, 84 percent of executives believe learning opportunities — among the most powerful drivers of employee engagement — are important in their companies.

However, it seems paradoxical that learning paradigms rarely introduce the unforgettable. In schools and offices, learning seems to do the exact opposite — to overload minds with imminently forgettable information that is supposed to somehow transform lives.

“Measured,” “concrete,” and “practical” are the buzzwords of many lukewarm workplace learning cultures. Such learning models sever people from the very possibility of being moved. No wonder employee engagement is at 13 percent, a global all-time low. Now more than ever, a new approach is needed to motivate learning and keep employees engaged, and the solution is in the sublime.

Have you ever been struck with awe when watching the untamable power of the ocean or the grandeur of a mountainous landscape? These kinds of experiences that sweep you off your feet, transcend the power of your senses, and unlock your imagination are known as the sublime. Such moments move us in indescribable ways.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our workplace learning models induced a similar response among employees? Thankfully, there are actionable ways to integrate the sublime into our workdays.

Make Learning Unforgettable

In our quest to provide safety, we’ve inadvertently sacrificed one of the most powerful motivators of employee engagement: the sublime.

Sublime experiences are distinct from mere beauty. While beauty feels rewarding, pleasant, and satisfying, the sublime adds feelings of fear and terror. Paradoxically enough, fear seems to be associated with pleasure in the context of the sublime.

For example, a recent study assigned people to one of four conditions: sit still, do jumping jacks, watch a happy video, or view a scary video. Then, participants were asked to assess the same works of abstract art. Interestingly, only the fear-conditioned individuals reported significantly more positive judgments about the art.

However, the differences between the beautiful and the sublime are not just experiential; they are also neurological. When neuroscientist Tomohiro Ishizu and his colleague looked at how beauty and sublimity impact the brain, they found that the two are entirely different. It appeared that sublime stimuli activate entirely different brain regions than beauty does.

Putting these findings together, it is possible that incorporating sublimity into workplace learning will make employees feel less internally fragmented because different regions of their brains are activated. Consequently, employees may feel that they are part of something greater within your company. This sense of belonging accommodates employees — especially millennials, who value inclusiveness in the workplace.

3 Ways to Introduce the Sublime Into Company Culture

The sublime doesn’t need to be excluded from the workplace. Here are three ways to integrate it into your company’s culture and learning structures:

1. Poetry to Encourage Questioning

David Whyte, a poet, author, and speaker, describes a near-death experience he had on the Galapagos Islands: “I lay on the beach with a deep pain running through my stomach — as if someone had reached inside me and in no uncertain terms informed me that I was like everything else in the world: I had no immunity.”

Said another way, Whyte’s terrifying experience made him feel more intensely connected to the world.

Today, Whyte works with companies by using poetry and stories to help professionals understand what they need to access within themselves. He has said, “It is impossible to build a creative, vital, adaptive workforce unless every member of that team is asking germane questions about their own lives.”

Hiring poets to discuss leadership topics or hanging poetry on office walls are practical ways to use poetry to induce the sublime. Alternatively, each week, employees can submit their favorite poems for company-wide distribution. Organizations can also start their own poetry podcasts in which they feature the reading of a poem that is inspiring, moving, and engaging.

2. Art to Encourage “Wayfinding”

Art and sculpture can also induce sublimity, as evidenced by Aithan Shapira, an artist who works with companies. Layers of contradiction are seen in his work, challenging employees’ abilities to perceive and experience what is going on before and around them.

Shapira’s work embodies themes of placemaking and wayfinding, which correlate with engagement. Placemaking refers to the way Shapira uses art to create a feeling of being somewhere rather than simply physically being somewhere, and wayfinding refers to a deep understanding of knowing your way forward based on understanding where you are coming from.

To put it simply, engagement is fueled by curiosity. Wayfinding is served by curiosity, and it leads to and is generated by a sense of belonging. Because art evokes these states, it’s a great tool to help employees experience complexity and become more engaged in their work.

Sublime art can be integrated into a company’s culture by hiring a sculptor, as well as by placing complex sculptures on the office walls or using them as screensavers. To demonstrate that art is not restricted to artists, schedule a team activity of building a sculpture together every month. It can be a standalone project, or something more long term.

3. Math to Encourage Order

Lastly, the sublime is also evoked by physics and math. Certain mathematical formulas evoke brain activation similar to visual art. The look of formulas or the correctness and replicability of their operations, especially if you do not know the exact meaning of a symbol, can induce a sublime reaction.

Symbols found in math and physics are both representations and condensed information. Our identities are made up of tangible and intangible components. Symbols might help activate such intangible components, making one feel whole without necessarily invoking logical narratives.

Now, I understand that math can be a challenge for many, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, mathematical sculptors  such as Helaman Ferguson can demonstrate math through the use of art. Ferguson uses his knowledge of mathematics to create sculptures through which people can experience mathematics in new ways. In his work, a simple geometric form delicately balanced on one corner can evoke a sense of precarious balance and emphasize the need for proportion and order.

Including mathematical art on the office walls or inviting the more technical members of your team to share the math and science behind their work with everyone are a couple ways to give employees a sense of awe tied to the order and complexity behind their roles.

While it is clear that workforces are massively disengaged, capitalizing on learning opportunities that offer sublime elements can provide out-of-the-box solutions that workplaces desperately need. By looking at a poem, sculpture, or mathematical symbol without judgment, you can cultivate sublime states simply through self-reflection, and these sublime states can make you feel more connected to others. Invest in the above approaches to find out how sublimity can offer a way to get your employees unstuck.

Dr. Srini Pillay is founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group.

By Srini Pillay