Over the past few years and more and more frequently now, I have been fortunate to work with Dr. Stuart Shanker on a national and international self-regulation initiative (see www.self-regulation.ca). In sessions across various jurisdictions, we engage with groups in a learning journey that takes people and school systems to new understandings of how people function – from surviving to thriving – all based on the neuroscience foundations of self-regulation. In exploring and engaging in self-regulation learning (a post-behaviourist construct), we begin to challenge long-held assumptions about learning, teaching and interacting, allowing us to apply what we have begun to understand in new ways, both personal and professional. Of course, none of this process is linear. It’s the same for all kinds of significant learning. Think of it as a spiral of discovery.
Stuart and I were recently working with a group on a large, system-wide self-regulation project. We were discussing the self-reg framework we use to explain the 5 domains that make up our personal architecture and the six levels of energy/arousal that describe the expenditure and replenishment of energy.
I won’t unpack the framework in this blog post. It has been referenced in previous blog posts and you can check on the self-reg website for a range of resources that will help with understanding both its complexity and its simplicity.
During the recent presentation, I began to think about the science of self-regulation as it applies to system health as well as to individuals. The framework isn’t new to me. I know it well as one of the key resources as Stuart and I use and we often reference specific cases to illustrate various states, their causes and impacts. But I had always considered it in the context of our individual neurophysiology. What became apparent to me was that this same framework can be equally descriptive and helpful to us in considering organizational health and efficacy. Think about it.
System architecture has the same 5 domains we use to describe individual human make up: “Biological, Emotional, Cognitive, Social and Pro-Social.” In systems work, we might think about labels like Human Resources/Talent, Culture, Skill, Teamwork, and Social Responsibility as equivalent (not perfect but adequate) to the five individual domains. There is even a better match between individuals and systems when we look along the vertical axis at the self-regulation energy levels: Asleep, Drowsy, Hypo-alert, Calm/Focused/Alert, Hyper-alert and Flooded.
Systems behave in many of the same ways individuals do when it comes to the ability to “self-regulate.” That is, they have a range of capacities allowing them to respond to and recover from stressors. Like individuals who are dysregulated, there are consequences and costs to system functionality and health as a result of dysregulation. And just like individuals, it is possible to get stuck in an unhealthy state – an unproductive and unsustainable “set point” – one is more and more difficult from which to recover.
In successful systems, appropriate resources are activated in response to stressors. This occurs multiple times per day, to allow the system/organization to return to a healthier and more productive state; one that is calm, focused and alert. Success in dealing with stressors begets further success. Conversely, organizations that are routinely over-stressed (hyper-alert or flooded) or under-energized (hypo-alert or drowsy) find it difficult to return to a balanced state in expending and restoring energy to function positively and productively. Just as success begets success, it is equally true that “dysfunction begets dysfunction” and systems can end up stuck in that self-fulfilling reality.
Self-regulation for individuals and for systems: it’s an interesting parallel and when we raised it briefly with session participants, there were a number of people for whom the connection made a great deal of sense. They talked about having worked in systems that were “flooded” and therefore unable to deal thoughtfully, rationally, calmly and productively with emergent issues. Those places were constantly in crisis and basic survival became the priority. There was no energy for much else. Others referenced experiences where there was an “under-response” to matters of significance. Their workplace/organization was sluggish and poorly attuned to signals requiring attention and action. Those places have a feeling of lassitude and sense of resignation and hopelessness. Of course, many others validated their workplace as an environment where there was skilful activation of strategies to promote a return to a positive set point in a timely manner.
None of us can avoid stressors and the related energy expenditure, either personally or in our organizations. The good news is that we do have the potential and the knowledge (what we know influencing what we do) to respond to those stressors effectively. Take another look at the self-regulation framework. It makes sense from many angles.