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Archive for March, 2008

Last evening, 11 friends came over to read Vaclav Havel’s popular play, The Memorandum.  We read it as an investigation into organizational life which, though written about the bureacracy of Communist Czechoslovakia, had been described as all too universal.

The basic premise of the play is that a new language is being introduced to speed office communications. Yet the memo announcing the new language is, you guessed it, in the new language. As the Managing Director drives himself crazy attempting to chase down someone who can translate for him, he discovers that it is his own deputy who has initiated the new language– while simultaneously instituting policies that hamstring anyone seeking a translation. 

The play is partly about absurdity and the climax of its commentary on organizational life is the scene where the deputy himself is trying to get a translation done and turns from player to player in a literal “vicious circle” of policies that make them each dependent on an input from another.  There is lots of politicking, with alliances forming and re-forming, while employees and managers spend most of their time obsessed with where they can obtain free food and drink.  Amidst the constant distraction, it seems that the characters who are most silent and compliant are the ones pulling the strings.

During these readings, we generally sit around my living room — a mixture of actors, scholars and dancers — adopting and switching characters as we please. In this case, I sat directly next to the Managing Director and at one point, could literally feel his character’s exasperation, as he was befuddled and over-run by the incoherence of the organization.  As the play neared its end, I felt myself cringing, as several characters repeated identical speeches to earlier in the play, initiating a predictable recapitulation of the same ineffectual process — as the first language is scrapped for being too difficult and a new language is initiated which is simpler because it combines meanings into fewer words.

Though we identified several similarities to modern organizational life (pre-meetings to plan meetings to have meetings), there were also several aspects that seemed a bit anachronistic — such as the mindless emphasis on policy and red tape and the staff spies. 

At the same time, the rush to “get on board” with a new framework or strategy before we have fully understood and internalized it, did seem familiar to me. Just as the characters in the play, very little actually gets done in the new language while everyone is busy enforcing policies related to it. It made me wonder — why was language so central to Havel’s exploration of this oppressive organization?

I also wondered at the centrality of the two silent, compliant characters who end up orchestrating the biggest twists in the plot. Knowing that Havel has written about The Power of the Powerless whose collusion unwittingly keeps oppressive systems in place, I wondered if these characters were meant to symbolize that sort of “everyman”.  His writings on this point, which were very important to movements such as Solidarity in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, are in sharp contrast to our usual ideas about the role of formal leaders in transformational change — and pique my curiosity.

Finally, two scenes in the play particularly  stood out for me, for their authenticity.  First was when the main character turns to speak to the “Staff Watcher” whom he knows is watching him through an “observation chink” in the wall. “Watcher, are you there?” he says, then asks for a cigarette.  It was a surprising and refreshing twist, where a trapped character finds a degree of freedom by commenting on precisely what is keeping him confined. 

The second was in the final scene, when, after an employee is wrongfully terminated, the Managing Director encourages her to go on to great things and then says,”And now, as absurd as it may seem, I must go to lunch.” What is it about food and drink at work that get so much of our attention?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts, questions, reflections.

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I guess it has been my own private defense against meaninglessness to ask business people for their stories. How do you make meaning of your work? What are you really up to? It has been a way to engage, through my various careers as a hotel manager, reenginer, instructional designer, executive coach, and management consultant.

And now, after 17 years, listening to these stories has brought me to a dilemma.

On the one hand, I am amazed at how many of us have nagging questions and private doubts about our organizations, industries or professions.  Apparently, these can arise early or late in our careers, depending on how idealistic we are and our chosen organization or profession.   Yet even if we have very low expectations, they can be compromised – mostly mildly, but sometimes in very painful ways.

For example, a highly competent publishing executive agreed to turn around a division at risk of being closed down.  Intrigued by the challenge, he moved his family out to the remote location and went to work. He had no illusions about the financial imperatives that might lead the parent organization to make a tough decision. Yet, when a year later he and the employees of the subsidiary did succeed in turning the business around, he expected that would mean rewards and recognition. Instead, it led the parent organization to reconsider their forecasts for the category and close the subsidiary business anyway – because such a high-volume business would need to be managed closer to home.  He described the painful moment when he had to announce a layoff, and during the 90 seconds as the message was being translated into Spanish for some of the local staff, how they were smiling and nodding, expecting to hear that they were getting  a bonus or an award.   

Numerous people have described similar experiences to me, to a greater or lesser degree. For some, it was as stark as a leader who threatened to fire them if they did not do something illegal or questionable. For others, it was simply the realization that their organization was not really going to change, or did not really believe in the values it claimed to espouse.  Over and over, people used phrases like, “you realize you might have made a deal with the devil”, “you have to drink the koolaid”, “you just do the dance”, “you cannot be honest”, or ”I’m having trouble buying in”.

And herein lies my dilemma. 

After 25 years and work in at least a dozen industries, assisting with countless change programs, reorganizations, and corporate initiatives, I know the rules.  I know it’s “just business”, and that whining, pointing fingers, or even wearing rose-colored glasses can be recipes for isolation, labelling, and disillusionment.

I also know that the business people I respect are focused on progress, moving forward, creating the future. They are courageous and principled in the face of incredible pressure, strive to influence their organizations for the better, and often, work for inspired and purposeful organizations. Yes, there are some hard truths, but why spend your time on the negative?, they ask.

I have to ask myself the same question. And here is my proposition:

What if the single greatest enabler of our ability to live up to whatever personal purpose or mission we feel called to is our ability to confront a single ubiquitous dilemma: Might I have to sell my soul to succeed? 

So many people told me they felt “lucky” their work aligned with their values. But what if our hands are forced? The corporate agenda shifts? A new leader sets a path, not knowing the valuable trajectories already underway?  I remember a client saying to me one day, “Oh, no, Systems Thinking is out now – the CEO threw it out. We can’t do that kind of root-cause analysis anymore.” How do we act in good conscience then?

Knowing where we stand and what our priorities are is a crucial foundation for making any commitment.  Otherwise, how will we respond when we are pressed to shift directions? As Senator John McCain says in Why Courage Matters, “We may strive for virtue, but without courage we are corruptible. Courage is the value that allows us to adhere to any other.”

So here is my invitation.

Let’s pool what we have learned — both about the pressures to compromise and about how to stay true.  Let’s compare notes on the “dark side”, but without resorting to alarmism, righteousness or even naive idealism.  Let’s simply look at these realities as the constraints on doing what we really want to do, as frontiers that, if expanded, could enable us and thousands of others to attempt and sustain more purposeful, actualized, and satisfying lives. And let’s talk about the “bigger games” we are striving toward…. or would like to if we could.

If corporations have as much influence over the future of our globalized society as is currently claimed, then engaging this inquiry has enormous ramifications. In my view, strengthening our ability to be true to ourselves at work not only increases our individual sanity and improves our organization’s ability to learn and innovate effectively, but enables us to “connect our dots” as a society. It allows our individual values and our natural human responses to the challenges of our time, to inform and guide our organizations’ actions and impact on the larger world around us.

So… how do we make a living without selling our souls? What experiences have you had that affect your point of view on this issue? What have you learned? (Please click on the Comments link below to add your perspective.)

–Elizabeth

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