...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. 


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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  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.


  • 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~

    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

  • 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. 



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