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Rice University researcher finds ways to spark epiphanies crucial to growing a business

How do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? Pexels

It might be just the right word from your boss. It might be a phone call with a trusted friend. Or it might be waking up one morning and just knowing. There's no way to predict what will spark an epiphany that changes the way you see the world. But their power can be so far-reaching, they often leave us wondering where on earth that brilliant idea came from — and how we can find more.

Studying the mental processes behind epiphanies is especially hard because these flashes of insight are usually linked with unconscious mental processing and incubation, often during time periods when one may not seem to be thinking about a problem at all. In this way, epiphanies seem to arrive effortlessly.

So how do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? In a set of unprecedented studies, Rice Business professor Erik Dane set out to find answers, first examining people who'd experienced general epiphanies, then analyzing a set of accounts of work- and career-related epiphanies themselves.

The research

In his first study, Dane surveyed more than 500 randomly selected people to ask them about their experiences with epiphanies, which he defined as a sudden and abrupt insight and/or change in perspective that transforms the individual.

Subjects who said they'd experienced epiphanies reported what they'd been doing beforehand, the feelings and insight associated with the epiphany and how they thought they'd changed afterward. Interestingly, though this survey wasn't limited to career- or work-related epiphanies, 20 percent of the responses related directly to these topics.

In the second study, Dane interviewed 22 professionals, asking them about distinct work- or career-related epiphanies, most of which resolved a nagging problem. After analyzing the transcripts of these interviews, Dane developed a set of theoretical categories describing the varieties of reactions an epiphany might spark.

People generally perceive and analyze their epiphanies in similar ways, Dane found. He categorized these into four dimensions: a person's emotional reaction to the experience of the epiphany, the question of how the epiphany arose, the circumstances that preceded the insight and a person's observations about how ready they were to experience change through an epiphany.

The findings

The typical first reaction to an epiphany, Dane says, is a sudden and emotionally charged release from a problem or tension. We've all been there: a stressful work situation that seems to offer no way out, followed by a dazzling solution that appears from the clouds. It's that suddenness that leads to the second typical reaction: a sense of astonishment due to the nonconscious nature of the insight's arrival. Feeling dumbfounded for a prolonged time isn't useful, though, so we usually start examining the factors surrounding the epiphany, including our own readiness to change.

What does this imply for workplace? After all, not every problem can or even ought to be solved by epiphany. At the same time, Dane notes, epiphanies can provide critical impetus to move forward.

Interestingly, his findings hint that one can increase the chances of having an epiphany. Though further research is required, Dane concludes that epiphanies most commonly arrive when people are open to the prospect of experiencing a major change. When something is mentally constraining us, on the other hand, eureka moments keep their distance.

The conclusion

As a worker, Dane suggests, you can open space for epiphanies by being actively aware of your surroundings. Look closely at your workplace, your constellation of coworkers and your place within the system. Perceived mindfully, these details may set the stage for problem-solving in a less focused moment.

If you're a mentor or a supervisor hoping to spark epiphanies in your work team, try applying this principle at work: Rather than laying out specific targets and attacking them head-on, aim for an environment that allows for mindful engagement, one that includes the problems that feature in your long-term goals and resonate with your workers' concerns and interests. Cultivating this environment and granting workers time and space to wander through it may lead, like a divining rod, to fresh sources of wisdom.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Erik Dane is a distinguished associate professor of management (organizational behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

The design of your startup office matters. The lighting, the acoustics, the vicinity of rooms; every little thing plays a role. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

If you want a work environment conducive to a nice flow of ideas, creativity, freethinking, and finding a work groove, then your startup design and workspace matter.

When it comes to a startup's office design, you want to create spaces with a purpose. You need to be certain what you want with your office's design. Moreover, you need to be certain what you want with every square foot. Yes, you have to be that detailed. Think about it. If you go into the design of your startup's office nonchalant, you'll have spaces without purpose. When you have spaces without purpose, they become susceptible to employees using them as they please. Suddenly, the open area near the creative space becomes the snacking spot. The open space by the window becomes "spot where everyone gathers to birdwatch." You get the picture. It becomes chaotic and confusing. That's why you have to make sure you know what purpose to ascribe every area of your startup.

Here are three features of startup design that help create a mood or ambiance.

Sound check

Some bigger companies hire an acoustics engineer to set decibel levels for every area and room in a workplace. They might set higher levels for a dining area where people are encouraged to interact and enjoy themselves. Lower levels will go to conference rooms and work areas. However, not every startup has a budget to bring in an acoustics engineer. But you can still apply the same principles to your startup design.

When you walk into a library or doctor's office, there's a tacit understanding that you should speak with a lower voice. You don't need an acoustics engineer to set the figurative and literal tone for what kind of behavior employees should exhibit in each area.

It is assumed, for example, that a dining area has more leeway for louder noise. So next to the dining area you can design a work area where one can assume being a little more amplified is allowed. You can have music playing in an area where people are encouraged to mingle and talk. Music is a great cue to signal that casual interaction is encouraged.

For quieter spaces, a tighter design for a room tucked away can send a signal to anyone to keep voices low. Also, if a room has an echo, people are naturally inclined to stay quieter. People tend to interpret spaces with echoes as spaces where they need to be quieter, since an echo carries voices.

Lighting

Exposing your office to natural light creates a positive mood that encourages interaction, collaboration, and an overall "lighter" tone for having a good time at work. Dimmer lighting can be used to create a sense of thoughtfulness and encourage workers in this area to brainstorm, lost in their thoughts.

Work in color

We all know by now that colors convey moods. Blue is pacifying (think Pacific Ocean), warmer colors like red and yellow encourage a more gregarious nature. Knowing what color to design each area of your startup workspace will go far in presenting the mood you wish to create.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.