The simple question, “What is it like to work here?”, opens up a vast landscape of the lived experience of workplaces. Organizations are places filled with meaning and emotion, a sense of belonging or alienation, not only of task and function, job and paycheck. How do we gain access to that inner and relational world of work?
Applied workplace poetry is one, still underappreciated way. For one thing, applied poetry is meant to be useful and helpful in ordinary life, not abstruse, clever, above the fray of daily life. Applied organizational poetry redeems people from being only statistics, numbers to manipulate, lifeless things to perform work.
Three decades of “managed organizational change” – euphemisms such as downsizing, re-engineering, restructuring – have taken an immeasurable human toll on people, marriages, families, organizations, communities and the nation. Indelible pain lies close to the surface of official corporate and political statistics on how well “the economy” is doing. Ironically, over the long run, downsizing and other radical workplace cutbacks have undermined productivity, profitability, and morale.
The “psychological contract” of hard work and loyalty, matched by job security and benefits, between employee and employer has long since been canceled by countless employers. In its place are much lower-paying jobs, few or no benefits, health insurance, no sick leave or retirement. Instead, workers face the constant threat of imminent expendability. Workers and employees are no longer regarded as full human beings, but as mechanical automatons, objects to manipulate, overwork, use up, and dispose of. Feeling alive is one of the first casualties of an emotionally deadened workplace.
David Whyte’s 1996 book, "The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America," paved the way in rescuing feeling human beings from being mere numerical data and wooden job descriptions. Workplaces can be fulfilling or deadening. Whyte reminded us that workplaces are steeped in value, devaluation, hope and disillusionment, worlds suited to the language and imagery of poetry. Task performance, productivity and profit are all embedded in the emotional atmosphere of the organization – “What it’s like to work here.” The spiritual essence of workplaces inspires applied organizational poetry.
Seth Allcorn courageously used the taboo word “death” in his 2001 book, "Death of the Spirit in the American Workplace." The pseudo-rationality of magical numbers stands in stark contrast with the spiritual death of employees whose meanings have been sacrificed at what I have called the altar of the Sacred Shrine of the Bottom Line. Workers live in a world in which shareholder value is the highest, even only, good, and employees are not even considered to be “stakeholders.”
A brief, recent poem, tries to evoke the assault on the spirit, that mechanistic lifelessness makes:
Who We Are*
A matrix of sacred clichés
proclaims to the world,
"This is the way
we do things around here --
and don't mess with it."
We don't think of
thinking outside the box.
We are the box.
*Light and Shadow. 2nd edition. Yukon, OK: Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2018. No page numbers. © Howard Stein
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Applied workplace poetry opposes, quietly resists, and protests what so many CEOs, other corporate officers, boards of directors, and managers insist is “business as usual.” Instead, poets reveal and label rationalized and enforced emotional abuse and brutality. Top-down “transformational leaders” demand unquestioning obedience and compliance. They lead by intimidation and inspire fear and punishment. Their style is command-and-control.
Since the heady beginning of massive organizational downsizing in the early 1980s, employees wonder whether “there is a target on my back.” “Am I next?” to be eliminated. Corporate leaders and their sycophantic coterie conceal real-life and demand secrecy about what everyone knows but must deny and dare not speak. Euphemism worthy of George Orwell dominates the official language and documents of the organization.
Before I have a thought,
you know what mine should be.
You can’t seem
to occupy yourself
*Evocations. Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance, 1997. P. 29. © Howard Stein
To call these toxic organizations is shorthand for the experience of being emotionally poisoned, of soul murder. Although for the most part there is no blood to show, the wounded spirit can be sensed almost as soon as you walk into the workplace. Dispirited, disillusioned, demoralized employees, many themselves “survivors” of multiple downsizings, restructuring, re-engineerings, deskillings, and outsourcings, must shoulder twice (or more) as much work to compensate for those employees whose jobs have been eliminated. For so many people for whom work is central to meaning in their lives – and often in preceding generations in their families – now find work to be meaningless, mechanical, a mere job and (much reduced) paycheck.
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What, then, does applied workplace poetry do? How can applied workplace poetry be of any therapeutic value in toxic organizations? How can it foster empathy, compassion, a lowering of defensive shields, even a degree of healing? Much as we might wish, applied workplace poetry cannot promise a cure for the poisonous, destructive atmosphere that has long pervaded so many organizations.
No magic here. No quick fix. Instead, it offers subtlety, attentive listening – to other people and to oneself --, reflection, an expansion of one’s own inner space, the creation of a place of emotional safety where new thoughts and emotions can emerge without fear of punishment. Readers and listeners often sense that “This poet understands what I’ve been through. What the poet is saying about his or her experience also describes my own.”
The applied workplace poet and his or her poetry help a reader or listener to feel: You are not alone. You are not “crazy” in what you think and feel. It’s not “all in your head.” You are not imagining things. What you experienced really happened (to you and those you work with). Yes, you couldn’t make this up.
To invoke medical language, if applied workplace poetry is not cure that will rid us of workplace toxicity, neither is it mere placebo, a deception, a diversion from painful reality. Instead, it helps individuals and groups to heal in a different way. If it cannot remove the deadly sickness, it can affirm to employees the validity of their own experience, that “This is a sick place.” It can help the soul to heal, at least a little. An applied workplace poet writes what Carolyn Forché calls “poetry of witness.” Bearing witness to atrocity does not eliminate it but affirms to the world that it is real. It creates a sense of connection and lessens the anguish of isolation.
Imagine employees and poets to be two tuning forks tuned to the same pitch. What the poet writes resonates emotionally with the lived experience and feelings of countless workers. “I lived that”; “The poet put into words and images what I have vaguely felt but could not find the words for. That’s me the poet is writing about. That’s my story as well as the poet’s.” In a way, the applied organizational poem helps to restore to the reader and listener his or her soul that had been stolen or had fled into hiding.
Poet, poem, listener and reader are thus linked in a relationship by an invisible thread of shared humanity. The poet is present through the poem; they are in an unconscious dialogue with the listener or reader. Through that presence in the poem, employees feel understood and, in a way, symbolically held and contained, by another person. “Yes, it really happened,” the poet says to the reader or listener via the medium of the poem.
How ironic, then, that applied organizational poet and poem offer reality to the reader and listener, in the face of the lies, distortions, and myths dictated by corporate leaders and their boards of directors and trustees about official “reality.” We have long been taught that poets and their poetry offer fantasy, metaphor, image, sound, imagination, the source of which is exclusively the inner world of the poet. Here, instead, we realize that the applied workplace poem is in fact co-created by poet and organization members.
Through compassion, the poet empathizes and identifies with the people and climate of organizational life, takes all this in, translates it into thought, processes it into the language of a poem, and offers it to the members of the workplace and beyond. The poem, then, is not the private property of an isolated poet. It is not mine or theirs, but ours. That is what makes the resonating tuning forks of lived experience possible.
Organizations need not be habitats of the living dead. Employees are not task-performing widgets. They – we – are living, sentient, human beings. Applied workplace poetry can help redeem who we are from the straitjackets that limit us to what we are and what we do.
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Howard F. Stein is a long-time applied organizational anthropologist and poet, who, before officially retiring in 2012, taught for nearly 35 year at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. My most recent book, co-authored with Seth Allcorn, is The Psychodynamics of Toxic Organizations: Poetry, Stories, Analysis, to be published later in 2020 by Routledge.