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The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace
By Alan Briskin
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Alan Briskin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Wilderness Within Ancient Views of the Soul
The journey is difficult, immense, at times impossible, yet that will not deter some of us from attempting it.... I can at best report only from my own wilderness. The important thing is that each man possess such a wilderness and that he consider what marvels are to be observed there. Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey
Andy is in his mid-thirties. He graduated with an M.B.A. from a prestigious university and sees himself as particularly skilled in transition management. He describes himself as comfortable with ambiguity and positive in his outlook on managing change—confident that he can help others with the difficult task of organizational transition.
When a reengineering was announced in his organization, he welcomed the opportunity for himself and his organization, which he saw as too insular and too reluctant to change. Told that an entire layer of senior administrators would be removed, he remained optimistic even though he was in one of the positions likely to be terminated. "Everyone was walking around with their heads down and filled with gloom," he said of his peers, "but I'm feeling upbeat about the changes. Sure, there'll be pain, but I'm not a victim. If I stay with the organization, that'll be fine, and if I don't, that's OK too."
In the next six months, a great deal changed. He found his ideals shattered, first by disquieting minor inconsistencies and later by a feeling of assault on his personal integrity and dignity. He was one of the few administrators among his peers who had not been terminated during the reorganization, but now that seemed a detail to him.
During the course of the transition, an outside consulting firm was hired to evaluate senior managers for potential new roles in the company. Andy's colleagues, subordinates, and superiors were asked to assess his value to the new organization. He was informed, almost by chance in a hallway, that their findings had been communicated to the CEO, who would be reviewing Andy's future in the organization. Andy was told when and where to report for the review. He was also told that a second consulting firm, hired to support employees being terminated, would be available following the interview.
The interview did not go well. There were high hopes for him in the organization, the CEO said, but nothing was mentioned about where Andy would be going or what he might be doing. The feedback on his performance was cursory, with the CEO stating that the consultants' interviews were confidential and therefore could not be discussed. The CEO did mention, however, that Andy didn't seem to be managing the transition very well. He seemed moody and not handling change in a particularly positive manner. The CEO referred obliquely to reports that at times Andy was perceived as losing control. He said that change was painful for everyone, but at Andy's level the expectation was that people should be able to cope. The CEO held out the hope that whatever Andy's new assignment, it would be an opportunity for him to grow and develop.
Andy felt convicted on charges he could not determine, let alone refute. He felt that he was supposed to be pleased with the interview, but what he actually felt was that he was being told he was a reclamation project. His performance ratings during the years of service to the organization had never been anything but positive. Somehow, and without explanation, he had become a problem that needed to be fixed.
Andy found himself in crisis, a crisis that echoed deep within him. The certainty he had felt about himself was shaken. The self-confident, forward-looking individual he knew himself to be now gave way to new aspects of his personality that seemed foreign and uncomfortable. Something was stirred up within him, feelings and emotions that he had trouble recognizing as his own.
The soul, as I use the word in this book, stands for the multiplicity of selves within each of us; their interactions and struggles are the threads that weave the self together. In tension with this interior complexity are the constant pressures, from within and without, to foreclose the mystery of our many selves. Understandably, we fear that the unknown may be dangerous. But to care for our soul—a timeless struggle made more urgent by modern society—we must combat those forces that would reduce us to just a singular self. The soul represents the mysterious, multifaceted dimension of our personality, never fully known, yet a source of vital influence.
How does such a way of looking at soul become relevant to and reflect our experience in the workplace? How can we bring more of ourselves into the workplace and into our own awareness? When is it we are most likely to confront different parts of ourselves and the organizations we work in?
For Andy, the rupture of his singular self led to a period of deep reflection. He felt as if veil after veil of illusion had been lifted from his sight, as if all he had done to rationalize his image of himself and his image of the organization had suddenly shifted. Where he had seen only individual pain, now he saw patterns of behavior that hurt people. Where he had accepted pain as necessary and inevitable during change, now he saw examples of abuse that were unnecessary and damaging. And more critically, he saw a different picture of himself emerging.
He was not only the strong, willful individual who had previously focused his attention outward, analyzing how others coped and viewing his role as helping others to cope better. Now, feeling vulnerable, he noticed more how much he held back, even from himself, his emotional reactions to events. He became aware that his instinct to analyze others was a protective mechanism, motivated as much by a sense of others' being dangerous as by a wish to help people cope better. And he saw that even his supposed strength at coolly analyzing situations was at times also an urgent attempt to distance emotions.
He described this new awareness of himself as revitalizing, as if he were a diver discovering new treasures beneath the surface of his previous awareness. He specifically discounted these discoveries as major insights; instead he saw that he had been aware of these things before, but never with the same attention and significance. What he found so revitalizing was not the discoveries themselves, but the depth of self that he had not known was waiting there for him. Before, he had been so enamored with his intellectual skills of figuring out and fixing problems that he had never perceived a need to plunge into the murky and shifting recesses of his own mind. Now he laughed at his image of himself as being comfortable with ambiguity; he was actually terrified of it. He had just never considered ambiguity as something that might last long enough to disturb him.
Andy began to express a new kind of confidence, though tentatively. A curtain had been pulled back, revealing his past and hinting at a new possibility for his future; options existed where before there had been linear direction. He saw that his personality had not been shaped entirely by conscious will and effort but rather by what the world threw at him. He had responded to events outside his control and then, after the fact, said he had chosen rational responses. He was not a victim, but neither did he always control events or his responses to them. Andy found this revelation liberating because he had carried into his adult life a terrible burden that he could control events, if only he could figure out the right thing to do.
Andy saw the irony that the CEO's hurtful feedback triggered a personal journey that might not have happened if all had gone well. He was at a loss for words to describe his sadness at the thought that this period of reflection might not have occurred. He imagined himself looking into a mirror and seeing a face appear that had not been there before—and disappearing just as suddenly. The joy at seeing this face was life affirming, but the notion that he might never have glimpsed it was disturbing, filling him with feelings of loss. He thought, however, that he had no intention of thanking the CEO.
Andy did not use the word soul to describe his experience. Yet his "double vision," the face he knew and the other face that appeared for an instant in the mirror, had the quality of multiplicity that is an aspect of soul. Andy was not describing just an insight into his personality. He was describing a mystery, a self he was but dimly aware of, one that had darker features and that contradicted essential aspects of his conscious personality. Yet his experience was of a person finding a relative long thought dead or never born. How could he be whole without this other person? How could he see the world differently, more contoured, and with greater dimension, if not through the eyes of this other face? There were few people he could talk to about this experience, he said. Who would believe him?
In the modern organizations that have developed over the past 150 years of the industrial revolution, there has emerged a concept of an individual personality, shaped by the necessities of work and the internal control individuals are required to have over themselves. This view has created a schism within the psyche of individuals, a fundamental polarization between wanting more control and a desire to experience ourselves as part of a mystery that is beyond our control. We seem often at cross purposes with ourselves, preaching the virtue of control and practicing its opposite.
The soul as multiplicity implies a dimension to the self much greater than what we know about ourselves consciously. Thomas Moore talks of a soul infinite in capacity, full of mystery, and contradictory in its designs over our life. Oscar Wilde, who wrote about the soul from his prison cell, said that only the shallow know themselves: if you know yourself, you have not touched the depths. But to know something of these depths, we first must be able to see in new ways.
Seeing with Soul
I was once in a photography class in Yosemite Valley. Other amateur photographers and I hoped to capture some of the beauty and grandeur of the granite rock faces and flowing waterfalls with our high-tech photographic gear. There was only one problem. It was raining so heavily that there was virtually nothing to see. Clouds covered the mountains, the fields and streams were gray, the movement of the water was almost invisible in the pelting rain. Our cameras were useless; one well-placed drop of rain could short-circuit the electronic brain, making the camera fire repeatedly or shut down entirely. Our instructor, an old hand at the idiosyncrasies of nature photography, cautioned us to remain aware of the constantly shifting light and the changing shapes of the mountains wreathed by the clouds. She encouraged us to see with a "third eye," to practice seeing with heightened awareness. Art, she reminded us, does not reproduce the visible. Art renders visible.
So I was staring at El Capitan with my third eye, only it felt like my two eyes and a headache. There was nothing much to see; the granite rock was almost completely invisible, the trees and streams flat in the dull gray overcast of the day. I was mostly engaged in an internal conversation with myself about not becoming frustrated. "What does it mean to render visible?" I asked myself.
When my attention returned to the mountain, I saw that something was happening. The rain had lessened by degrees, and suddenly feelings within me began to stir. Pulling out my camera, I framed different sections of the mountain with my lens. I saw something otherworldly, something I could not have seen were I staring numbly at the scenery. I got an image in my mind of the trees in partial silhouette staring at the mountain in awe, their sharp triangular shapes huddled together below the mysterious outcropping of rock that hovered above them. I now understood that to render visible is to see through the visible into a world that becomes animated with imagination.
Seeing through and beyond is essential in our work as well. We cannot know ourselves, or the workplaces we are part of, in any depth unless we engage the full breadth of our humanity, vitality, and understanding.
The elusive nature of knowing how to see with the soul requires a certain stillness and attentiveness. Stillness creates an opening in the surface world of things. Attentiveness leads us out from the thicket of thoughts, events, and beliefs that snare us. How could I see through the flat gray landscape of an overcast day if I was snared by my frustration with technology, my disappointment with the weather, and my confusion with mystical abstractions calling me to see with a third eye? The instructor's comment to watch the light was both a concrete suggestion and a metaphor for finding a way below my conscious thoughts and beyond the limits of my vision. Attending to the light brought a hidden awareness to the surface that rendered visible not just a landscape of trees and cloud and rock but one of mood and emotion and fantasy.
So it was with Andy in the story that opens this chapter. He knew himself too well. There was no mystery to his responses. Through his frustration, he learned that any reasonable person reviewing a common body of facts would not, as he believed, come to a conclusion similar to his. Frustration taught Andy, as it taught me, to sense greater depth and complexity and to open to mystery. The challenge of finding soul in organizations, as in life, is to embrace not only what we see, hear, and understand but also to attend to what we don't know, what we cannot see at first glance or hear on first listening.
The soul in its multiplicity is an idea directly contradicting the literal, rational, unitary interpretation of events so common in organizations. The soul speaks in the language of metaphor, fantasy, and emotion. I watched clouds taking on different shapes and colors with each subtle shift in the wind and nuance of light; that is exactly how the unconscious feels to me when I pay attention to it in myself. My thoughts, moods, fantasies, and emotions are constantly shifting, rearranging, coming in and out of focus. What is real for the soul is different from what is real for the objective manager who assumes a reality that can be discovered through external facts and reasoned argument. Below the surface of reason is an unconscious wilderness animated by feelings of awe and danger.
We need an approach to soul that respects its own complex language, that allows us to see its stirrings in the workplace and in our own hearts. Soul reminds us of what has been forgotten and disowned. We bring more of ourselves into the workplace when we remember what we have come to achieve and what struggles we must face.
The soul's vitality as an idea lies in its capacity for renewal, a conception born in the depth of human imaginings about the limitations and infinite potentialities of being human. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who decried that God was dead, insisted that we should keep soul alive, for it is "one of the oldest and most venerable of hypotheses" (Thiele, 1990, p. 52). Why is this so? What is it about the soul as a symbol that it can remain open to new forms of interpretation, yet still represent a timeless attribute of beauty, human fragility, and the longing for meaning? How does one approach the soul?
Ancient Wisdom About the Soul
As far back as we can trace, concepts of the soul have been diverse, with multiple meanings in varied contexts. The word soul is used so frequently today that it has become something of a projection screen from which we each can envision our own particular meaning. Soul is a concept used in religion, literature, philosophy, poetics, psychology, politics, and now increasingly in the world of management and the workplace. The Soul of Business by Tom Chappell has become a best-seller, Bolman and Deal write about Leading with Soul, and Tom Peters uses the word soul repeatedly in his books on the changing workplace. But soul is an ancient idea, central to traditions in both the East and the West.
Excerpted from The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace by Alan Briskin Copyright © 1998 by Alan Briskin. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part One: Perceiving the Soul
1. The Wilderness Within: Ancient Views of the Soul
2. Shadows of the Soul: Acknowledging the Dark Side of Our Best Intentions
3. The Domination of Souls: How Organizations Become Our Keepers
Part Two: Chasing the Dream of Order
4. When Machines Won the Day: Streamlining the Soul to Fit the Industrial Age
5. Enlightenment Born of Fear: Frederick Taylor and the Gospel of Efficiency
6. Separating Action from Meaning: The Legacy of Efficiency
7. The Management of Emotion: Elton Mayo and the False Enchantment of Human Relations
Part Three: Journeying Toward Meaning, Coherence, and Wholeness
8. Taking Up Our Organizational Roles: How We Can Affirm Our Experience at Work
9. Viewing the Whole: A Way to Grapple with Contradictions
10. A Path with Soul: Joining Our Inner and Outer Worlds\