However much we may live ‘in our heads’, we are warm blooded creatures sharing a single planet and a single atmosphere with a vast array of other organisms, all of them subject to ups and downs of health, sickness, ageing and mortality. Our creature needs as humans include our social needs: we are group/community, not solitary, animals. Each of us is a unique individual, yet we need each other. We also have a lot in common: all of us dwell moment-to-moment in an ever-changing, soup of chemical reactions and electrical signals bounded by a porous skin and oxygenated by breath. Our skin is an outer envelope; a boundary; a communicator; a sensory organ whose shape, colour and size also plays a pivotal role in our social identity.
Individuals, teams and organisations are many things – but they all have in common the reality of embodiment. We are born, and live our entire lives, inhabiting a body. This truth is so universal that – like drinkable water in our rain-rich country – it seems unremarkable. In fact, it’s a kind of living miracle: few planets in the universe have conditions that make life possible; even fewer will have produced bodies as complex as the human being. It’s only when something goes wrong that we appreciate what we have taken for granted: a day or two without water and we quickly appreciate its value to us; a day or two of sickness and we quickly appreciate what our body has been doing for us quietly all along…
Our bodies are amazing. They are capable of incredible feats of ingenuity, endurance, skill, creativity. Our minds are heavily dependent upon our bodies. The two are intertwined at the most microscopic level. Our thoughts have a physical reality as lightning-fast electric signals; our feelings are the product of chemical compounds of emotion; physical sensations, whether subtle or gross, constantly impact our subjective experience. All of these flows of information within the skin of our bodies nudge or shove us into reactions or responses, resulting (for better or worse!) in words and
Most of these flows pass below the radar of our conscious awareness. We are constantly awash with a maelstrom of information – much of it below the radar of conscious awareness, but continually impacting our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Mind and body are so inseparable that it is virtually impossible to have a significant thought or feeling without some detectable physical change, or any physical change without some connected thought or feeling. Our brains and nervous system have adapted so as to shield the tiny, embattled realm of conscious awareness from what would otherwise be an overload of data by sending nearly all essential and well-learned functions to the domain of the so-called ‘sub-‘ and ‘un-conscious’. This includes what we have come to call ‘unconscious biases’ – the ways in which we gravitate towards or away from a category of people, things or situations based upon past experience, rather than present time reality.
What’s Embodiment Got to Do with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion?
Though dwelling in a body can be wonderful, our bodies are also places of vulnerability – to sickness, injury, stress, long term decline, social exclusion, discrimination, isolation, alienation. In the Britain of the 1950s it was not unusual to see signs proclaiming ‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’. It was not just hearts and heads that were impacted, but actual bodies who were denied access to jobs, accommodation, facilities because of their perceived group membership.
When George Floyd was murdered, it was not just hearts and minds that were traumatised: Mr Floyd was just one in a long line of bodies extinguished by racism. This had reverberations around the world. Here in the UK, many bodies were stripped of their carefully constructed defences against trauma and the threat of violence. Entering a predominantly white workplace after 25 th May 2020 became a different experience for black and brown bodies.
When buildings or offices are inaccessible to disabled people (yes, it continues to happen today!), it is also a continuation of generations long exclusion of bodies with certain impairments.
When a Boardroom or workplace has been inhabited exclusively by bodies identifying as male for long enough, it becomes a charged, and often hostile, place for bodies identifying as female or non-binary to enter.
Because of the realities of structural and systemic inequality and exclusion, certain bodies are more likely to experience repeated rebuffs and barriers. Others are more likely to experience its flip side – repeated, and normalised social inclusion. Experiences of inclusion and exclusion can – and frequently do – change over a single lifetime: someone who had 20:20 vision when younger may become visually impaired when older and start to experience exclusion from spaces that were once accessible. Cultural, economic, social and legislative changes can also make a huge difference – such as Equal Age of Consent for gay men and Equal Marriage, which opelegitimised LGB bodies’ presence in a wide range of spaces in which they were previously hidden, such as wedding venues.
Impacts of Inclusion and Exclusion
Feeling included, connected with others and having a sense of belonging eases our nervous system state and our body chemistry. Freed from the need to be hypervigilant about our safety, we can start to relax, play, create, innovate, contribute.
The experience of exclusion, by contrast, has negative mental, cognitive and physical consequences. Some people’s ‘normality’, consequently, has a high level of stressors not experienced by others. A chronic situation of this kind creates an electro-bio-chemical imprint in the body. That imprint has long-term implications for mental and physical health and resilience. Scientists are now beginning to understand how these implications can be transmitted generationally.
So when people say ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ or ‘disablism’ or ‘homophobia’ have health consequences, this is not an impression, guesswork or speculation. It is increasingly founded in fact and research. Some bodies are free from the repeated injuries that oppression visits upon other bodies. This creates an inequality which is individually and collectively not just felt but lived. Consequently, people literally inhabit different realities whilst working in the same workplace, team, job role or organisation.
Disabled colleagues and their non-disabled colleagues will often have very different experiences – for example on public transport, in leisure activities, booking holidays, accessing housing, training and education or services. Heterosexual colleagues are less likely than their LGB counterparts to have been rejected by their families, school mates, customers or managers because of their sexual orientation – and therefore may not know how it feels to navigate the difficult terrain of ‘coming out’.
When these bodies enter the workplace, they bring their life experience and history with them.
So, what if…. what if the workplace were a place relatively free from the impact of oppression in the wider world? What if people could breathe in and out when they arrive at work, knowing they are safe enough and free enough from barriers or micro-aggressions to contribute their best?
A more inclusive workplace is a place of hope, of respite from other areas of life where inequality is more prominent, of self-realisation and the building of positive, productive, rewarding relationships across all kinds of difference. It becomes a place of wellness. Lower turnover, higher attendance, less presenteeism, more commitment. And happier colleagues.
Developing a workplace culture which mitigates this impact and helps build health, sustainable workplace relationships is not an act of charity: it’s the basis of a successful organisation.
Embodiment and Conscious leadership
It won’t surprise you that, to us, Conscious Leadership starts with the leader’s awareness of their own body – its impulses, memories, responses; its communication and behaviour toward others.
At a basic level, the leader who respects their own creature needs will not only function better, but has the ability to recognise and prioritise the bodily needs of others. These needs include, and go beyond, physical needs of the body. They range from steady blood sugar and hydration; to sufficient rest between tasks or exertion; to recognition and acceptance by colleagues; to privacy and physical and psychological safety; to the opportunity to make their best contribution.
Deeper than that, our bodies carry the memory of everything that has ever happened to us, or that we have done. So the conscious leader treats their own physical responses and experiences as a rich seam of information to be mined moment to moment. It helps them navigate whatever they are encountering now. Learning to do this is sometimes called using ‘self as instrument’. The ability to do this brings new dimensions to our ability to understand and lead situations and other people.
Our work with leaders starts with own self-knowledge, self-care and wellbeing because that enables them to function well and to recognise the ways in which their system supports, or fails to support, the people who work in the organisation. It builds upon this by equipping the leader with enough ‘inner track’ (inside their own skin) understanding to complement their understanding of what is going on around them. This helps them navigate the challenging emotional terrain of DE&I, in which people frequently become angry, defensive, insecure, fearful or anxious. Others sense this stability in the conscious leader, and start to trust that difficult situations can be navigated safely.
To lead and build an inclusive work culture that welcomes embraces difference and puts it to work, it is good to have an intellectual understanding of DEI and structural inequality, to know the ‘right’ language and to comply with the law. However, inequality and exclusion are not primarily intellectual realities – they are embodied experiences. The leader who understands their own embodied experience of privilege or oppression from within the framework of their own body is better placed to extend that understanding to the experiences of others.
If these ideas interest, challenge or inspire you, stay in touch with us. We’d be delighted to come alongside you on your conscious leadership journey.