…we learn the paradoxical lesson that we can change the world only by changing ourselves. This is not just a cute abstraction; it is an elusive key to effective performance in all aspects of life.

–-- Robert Quinn, from his book, Deep Change

The Work With No Name

The work with no name is from one angle just the humble work of humanizing our workplaces, our working civilization. It cannot have a name lest it go the way of all programs, destined to be judged by whether or not it makes money for some corporation. (This came up for me last week via one of Louise Altman’s powerful posts on how even the current movement in mindfulness can be subverted into a means to deliver productivity and profit.) What Louise described is not different than what has happened to other efforts I’ve seen in the last twenty-five years, ones that seemed to have been originally offered, at least in part, as ways to humanize business culture. Whether it was called Total Quality Management or Employee Engagement or Neuroscience, Diversity, Ethics or Servant Leadership, the ultimate question has all too easily become, Will it pay? This, of course, is not always the case. The question may not always be in the background. It can just be something wound up within the skepticism about flavors of the month. Will this new effort in fact make things better and how much are those consultants getting paid, anyway?

I do not mean this to sound so cynical. Capitalist, hierarchical culture is what it is. But you must also know this is why I am reticent now, twenty-five years in, about promoting programs that seem to be fads and why I even hesitate to try to define my work using language that is too current. I sense my professional tasks are based on more or less enduring but uncomfortable values that I often keep private about, like truth, insight, self-knowledge, collaboration, reduction of suffering and that hard-to-categorize urge people sometimes feel to grow more fully into being themselves. When it’s appropriate for such phrases and framing to appear in a conversation, I bring them up, but I don’t sell them.

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How can there be money in my approach, you may ask. Well, and how do you advertise if you don’t have a program of some kind? Those are very good questions, my friends. I wish I had a clearer, more certain answer.

I’ve certainly had my fair share of nickels and dimes come through my bank account based on exactly the kind of programs named. However, I’ve come to believe my work is actually sourced in a deeper hope, one that involves our often understated or misunderstood communal life and desire for personal well-being. There is something in us that yearns for a better world, for a better me and a better us, one with less violence and more compassion; less stress and more understanding.

I have read here and there about oppression. Just yesterday, I noticed an article in the Tibet Post about a nun who recently self-immolated in protest to continued Chinese occupation of that country. The article mentions there have been 137 self-immolations in Tibet since 2009. I had no idea immolations were going on so frequently on the other side of the world.

On this side of the world we don’t seemingly have to deal with such things. But the article drove me to wonder how many metaphorical self-immolations are going on against a another, softer and more subtle kind of oppression. We don’t think of the disengagement of a person as a kind of self-immolation, as a kind of protest that points to a different kind of freedom. And yet, disengagement is a very loud message, if we have the ears to hear.

What I believe is that we don’t actually need a name for what our next improvement looks like, and that programs are often an excuse, a way to try to slide in certain values through the backdoor — as if that’s the only way the powers that be will listen. We do try to sell them, and all too often as means to making even more money. I think we are capable of operating without these devices if we exercise our real hearts and minds. We don’t need a benchmark, a financial report, a study of anything. We don’t need the latest dogma to know what our freedom looks like, to know what the good looks like, to know how to create a more human world. We already contain that “genius.”

I said at the beginning that this is humble work. It is humble because I sense it is released more than taught and has to do with the nature of our communal life at the core of what it means to be human. You might try to make this unnamed thing into something else than what it is but it just keeps escaping the grasp of our transactional minds, even as we try to slip it in sidewise through the next workshop. It isn’t “transformative leadership.” It isn’t “progress” of any conventional sort, to be measured, assessed, debated, judged, turned into exercises and applied learning only to be transcended and ultimately dismissed. It isn’t a historical development or movement that makes its fervent adherents superior to others. It’s not a political philosophy or clever dictum. There are not some who “get it,” and some who don’t. Rather, it is free to everyone who wants to use their lives in positive and creative ways. It’s not a religion or even an anti-religion. It didn’t just arrive or been here all along. It didn’t start anywhere at all. There is no pioneer thinker, no guru, and there are certainly no consultants and paid facilitators. It is as informal as it is disciplined, as transient as it is abiding.

It is us without any program at all, and it may well be exactly what it will take to change the world.

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9 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing this. It strikes many chords with me. It created a harmonic resonance.

  • Hi Terry~

    Thank you! I’m glad the “field” was operating!

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Tracee Vetting Wolf wrote:

    Brilliant, Dan! I have been exploring and writing about self-agency as the “program” for collaboration (I put it in quotes to mean that it’s not really a program at all, as you’re saying in your article). I appreciate very much how articulate you are in the midst of this very tricky thing, that it is humility that helps us grasp it. Thank you for this post!!

  • Dear Tracee~

    I very much appreciate your kind words and agree that self-agency and humility are both so important. To me, humility is freedom well used.

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Becky Coleman wrote:

    Mighty fine thinking. The soul satisfaction derived from individual affirmation is worth more than gold. Many times, a job, a business, a company, deflect us from the desire to operate from the heart. The econ system didn’t develop to reward that path, but I/we can make HumanUs a priority even within the most obstinate system, if we try.

  • Dear Becky~

    There it is, the HumanUs, right there in your words. But, O Lord, protect us from the HumanUs program at major corporations across the country and around the world. ; > )

    Thank you, my friend. Ribs anytime you are in town.

    Best
    ~Dan

  • Hi Dan,

    I am so grateful that you were able to derive some inspiration from my current post. As always, but particularly in this piece, I resonate deeply with your thinking about your work.

    For all the benefits of social media, too much of it is self-promotional and the “work” is forced (sometimes literally) into neat, little packages that limit and have to grab attention. I think this has, in many ways, contributed to the aggrandizement of “programs.”

    And while there is nothing wrong with supporting employees and organizations to be more effective in their work, this is almost completely equated to profits and the all-important ROI.

    Often when I speak to clients, I find that even the descriptions they offer about how they have benefited from the work is done within the framework of the company’s outcomes. For some, just at the end, it slips that – well I also find I am listening more at home.

    As for the central theme of my piece on mindfulness, I do believe that the practice of true mindfulness can support development pf all of the qualities you referred to: truth, insight, self-knowledge, collaboration, reduction of suffering and that hard-to-categorize urge people sometimes feel to grow more fully into being themselves the question remains – how will be be packaged and presented and what expectations will employers have of this newly “mindful” workforce?

    Of course, as with values work and development of emotional self and interpersonal awareness, these are life-long commitments. The “work” is never accomplished. Every interaction is a practice. And in my experience, the corporate world does a very poor job of communicating this.

    It is after all, humble work. That’s a tough word to communicate in the grandiosity of today’s business world. Indeed, humility, as you say is freedom – well used.

    Thanks Dan….

  • Dear Louise~

    Gratitude.
    Great gratitude, Louise.
    Of course I derived “some inspiration” from your post. In my book you are one of the best of those sensitive voices that combine understanding of the spirit with a sense of the realities of influencing business culture, elevating both.

    All of us want to find our way in — into the outside world, and yet the irony is that that Practice seems so clearly to be more about finding a way into ourselves.

    You have such a lovely way of integrating the two worlds, outside and inside, which is at once about knowledge, but in the end is mostly about a kind of wisdom that cannot be present without experience and adversity. And this I sense, perfectly, is a testament to your life, what you have learned along the way and given and suffered for in order to get the gold, the joy, and now turn it around freely so that all those you have touched may prevail in their own lives and their work, whatever that work and their need for love may be.

    I cherish your perspective in a world that is not very easy, but for the beauty and grace and the stamina of real leaders like you.

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Dear Dan,

    This article was a pure act of bravery. I commend you for it! It’s not fashionable to go against the grain of the latest trends and orthodoxy in leadership training in the modern work environment. Where you flipped this whole thing on its head is by peeling down to the bottom layers of the human facade–down at the core where humanity sits. Specifically, the paragraph where you state:

    “However, I’ve come to believe my work is actually sourced in a deeper hope, one that involves our often understated or misunderstood communal life and desire for personal well-being. There is something in us that yearns for a better world, for a better me and a better us, one with less violence and more compassion; less stress and more understanding.”

    There seemed to be one missing element to your thesis, and that is technology. Over the past 100 years our society has relied on technology to create our “modern” world, modern wealth and modern lifestyle. However, it all comes at a cost. For many it can be liberating; for others it can be the loss of self…of personhood…of soul. Contemporary technology — e.g. smartphones — can make us tethered to a world that is ephemeral. When we look away from our smartphones and look up at our friends, colleagues and loved ones, we return to the world. Technology often requires that we step out of the physical world and lose a sense of self, becoming a cog in the machine.

    Humans like to pattern themselves after the technologies they create, so we build warehouses for Amazon where employees have seconds to “pick” items for shipping. We have fast food workers who must get 100 burgers out the door an hour, and we have health care systems that count the minutes a doctor spends with a patient to ensure the physician is making best use of her time, resources and most important, maximizing profits. Well, the workers at the Amazon warehouses are suffering from all manner of illnesses which have been widely documented, the burger flippers are getting ill from the food they work with, and the physicians are burning out at an alarming rate.

    The paragraph that I cited above speaks to the heart of it. We are always in the process of becoming….becoming a better person, a better husband, a better father, a better friend to a neighbor, a better supervisor to our employees. We will never get there, so how do you give this self evolution work a name? And furthermore, how do we bring community back into the workplace? A recent B-School study revealed that workers who made friends at work were less likely to leave their jobs. But we were all taught the water cooler was a joke. Suddenly, I want to get a drink of water.

    Namaste,

    Karl

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