Soul can be a difficult word when it is associated with a workplace. Work and business are the domain of measurement and management, of productivity, logic, structure, systems, strategies and alignments. Often these are things that have little obvious connection to the deeper stories of the people within the systems. Those hidden stories may contain subjective truths and emotional realities, but often such soulful intangibles are regarded as mere distractions, just so much sunlight glinting off the surface of a moving river. Even businesses enlightened to their role and contribution in creating a better world may find naming and valuing the true soul of the place elusive. It turns out you can’t just rely on a noble cause or private passion or be righteous about your workplace, no matter what the work is. Soul cannot be known so easily. It may always be a little different than you think it is.
We can say that the soul of a business has to do with its real culture. Not the intended one pasted on the walls as a mission or vision or values statement, but the way events and the history of a place have shaped “what it really means to work here.” There may be a kind of narrative quality to it, or the lack of the narrative that could or should be there. We may know the place by the kind of hole that is felt there, maybe experiencing what people believe once filled that hole in the past. The soul may be about the good in the place, the real care for employees and customers, even as it is also laced with an evident darkness, the ugliness of a top manager found to be stealing from the firm. The soul may be found in the spoken words, the last motivating speech of the CEO, replete with personal gratitude, but also the vast unspoken language that defines a different voice, one that beats people up every day on the shop floor. The point is that you have to be careful saying you think you know the soul of a workplace because there are always layers. About the time you’ve decided that a place is “soul-less” or “soul-killing,” for instance, you may overhear a conversation in the corridor that contains a deeper spark of human feeling and knowing. Maybe it’s in the laughter when someone pulls a joke in the elevator. Maybe it’s in the momentary awkwardness when the joke’s not all that funny. Anyway, maybe soul is just what you can’t help but love about a place, even when it hurts.
It is said that the shaman works by entering the spirit world, a separate reality. So, too, potentially do we all as we open the door every morning and pass through security. You may laugh at that comparison, but I hope you will also see the grain of truth. We all potentially share in the passage to heal the places where we work as much as we work on healing ourselves. And it may be, indeed, a very separate reality.
It’s good to remember that beyond the soul of any workplace are individual souls, yours and mine. It is up to us, after all, to see with our own eyes, to discern for ourselves where good is and where it is not. Organizations have their part to play in our own soul-making work, but they are not us. It seems true to me wherever we work, whether in a factory or a store, a fast food restaurant or a downtown skyscraper or sing alone in the street with a one-string guitar, whatever we do, taken seriously, tests how willing we are to take two journeys: one out of ourselves and another going in.
For our soul-making, corporate or individual, is as instinctual and powerful and as natural as fish returning from the sea, clearing away the stones in the sandy shoals in order to create yet another generation. Have you seen them, holding a place in the river’s fine, cold current for the larger task? It is just what it is, clearly visible below the surface reflections, both instinctual and intimate.
They fulfill a cycle just as we do, passing on part of themselves before they, too, are gone. Soul is more like that.
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