Revealing The Rainbow

You don't have to be a manager to make a difference

One of the articles in Living Business (IC#11)
Originally published in Autumn 1985 on page 54
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Leslie Ehle is the guest editor for this issue. She’s a management consultant and can be reached at The Delta Group, 9542 32nd Ave NE, Seattle, WA 981 15.

SO MUCH of what is being written about business and management is written for a small minority – managers, aspiring managers, and entrepreneurs. What about the majority, those who aren’t any of these and don’t want to be, whose basic goal is financial support (hopefully doing something reasonably enjoyable and worthwhile)? Not in a position to "call the shots" (and not wanting that level of responsibility), what difference does it make that so much is being written and said about business? Do we have to aspire to management or to entrepreneurship in order to make a difference?

For me, the answer to this is a resounding "NO!" Business never exists in a vacuum. People have to want those products or services enough to buy them. Likewise, managers wouldn’t be managers without people to manage. In both cases, the continued existence and the well-being of business and management rely on the participation of you and me. In a very real sense, the way we "vote" that really counts is in the votes we cast with each dollar we spend, and with each hour we use. Business is the real ballot-box of the world, and the campaigning never stops.

Just what is business? Webster spends almost half a column on it, but I like my own definition better: it is the area of our action in the world, our encounters in which we co-create life, sustain and extend ourselves. Work is whatever we do with some purpose in mind; business is the result, the form taken by our interdependence and relationship with each other and with the planet.

This has been a summer for a vegetable garden, calling on my physical labors in a way quite different from the mental labors my business requires. On hands and knees, pulling weeds from among the young cabbages provides a counterpoint to weeding ideas and words grown thick from study.

Images, images: I see myself in the archetypal business office, and everywhere I turn it’s somehow "them," alien, distant from me, aloof, cold. Serious, very serious, always serious. Dressed in the stiffness of suit and tie, inhabiting the large, intimidating corner office, great slab of the executive desk the size of a football field. There’s a pervasive, inhuman grayness – lacking in warmth, driven only by a bottom line, to accumulate and control dollars, property, lives. Not "one of US," in fact, probably opposed to what "we" believe in, just as "we" oppose what we believe they stand for. As I conjure up this image that goes back to childhood, it’s always older than I, male, alien, unapproachable, critical, intimidating.

Even now, so many years later, this image still glimmers in the corners of my mind, in spite of so many experiences that paint a much more diverse picture.

Our culture seems to be overrun with the weeds of the quest for success. Whether couched in tangible symbols (having the right clothes, car, house), the less tangible (having the right job title, working in the right profession, having the right friends), or in terms of dollars (in which case the symbols become the right money market account, financial planner or stocks), we plant a set of images of what success means, then tend them with a vengeance. Fed by childhood experiences, by the messages of the media, by the desire to be acceptable to the people around us, we encourage the weeds’ growth, expecting a crop that can feed us. The balance is lost – what can really sustain and shelter us gets crowded out of the garden.

My work in the garden teaches patience. In March, the soil is turned, rows laid out, seeds planted. I cannot hurry germination, only prepare the soil, provide water, and wait. The garden will need my attention over time, with water and weed-pulling, thinning out the little plants to an uncrowded number. I cannot will the sun to shine, but I can choose where I plant so that the corn gets day-long sun, the lettuce a shady afternoon.

I must bring this same cooperative, patient spirit to my work in business.

I also know that I need to be involved in something that’s more than just me – something I can see as having meaning beyond my own well-being. And, when I really think about it, I realize that almost any activity can be viewed from a perspective that includes the well-being of others or the well- being of the planet. It’s up to us individually to seek out those meanings in whatever it is we do that we choose to call "working."

I hear a lot of people complain, in one way or another, about their jobs: frustrations about a boss who won’t listen to suggestions for improvement; a co-worker who doesn’t cooperate, or who actively subverts a project by providing inaccurate, incomplete information; supervisors who steal credit for ideas their subordinates developed; a job that demands 60-hour weeks in order to meet chronically unrealistic, inflexible deadlines.

The details vary, but I notice a common theme in all of them, including my own complaints: an unwillingness to acknowledge my own choices, and thus my own responsibility and power. The possibilities are multiple: The choice of what I see or don’t see; the choice of letting something upset me, or the choice to say "yes" to something that overextends me; the choice to withhold energy and attention, to be an "outsider" rather than a wholehearted participant; the choice of over-investing, of putting too much into the job, ignoring other activities and human contacts that can help me maintain balance, perspective, my sense of humor.

Even if I recognize my choices, I can still slip into the trap of self-blame: "I’ve made the wrong choice, a stupid choice, a poor choice – I should know better." At such times, my sense of humor sometimes helps, to acknowledge that, in fact, few actions create irrevocable life-and-death situations; to say, it’s o.k. to be wrong, to make mistakes; to remind myself that I made the best decision I could at the time. And from there to re-examine my options in the present moment and start again.

I have an old grape-vine near the house, neglected for years before I moved in over two years ago. I’ve now pruned it twice, slowly bringing back a semblance of growth contained and directed.

Yet my efforts have still not produced fruit, and I’m tempted to throw in the trowel, evict the vine, plant something else. Sometimes that’s the best choice – the soil is poor, there’s too little sun, no realistic hope of abundant production of anything but vines.

Given many options for places to grow, we may find it too easy to pull up roots and move to a new company. But, like my grapevine, perhaps just a bit more tenacity, just a little more pruning and fertilizing, just one more turn of the seasons will see fruit.

The choice is never an easy one.

It seems to me that there are two elements we can all use to advantage when it comes to altering less-than-ideal circumstances in the work-place: enthusiasm and mystery.

Enthusiasm is highly contagious – find one person who is authentically excited about a project, an idea, a product, and you’re likely to see a group of people drawn by the infectious energy that person radiates. Tap that excitement in yourself and work becomes play, difficult jobs become stimulating challenges, difficult people become unique opportunities to refine your ideas and approaches. This isn’t the rah-rah facade of a pasted-on grin, but rather the sparkle deep within your eyes that comes from doing what you love and loving what you do.

Mystery is something else again – I think that we’re a lot like cats, curious about what’s in the box or the bag or the open drawer. We share secrets over coffee, puzzle over what makes people tick, are drawn to that which hints at undiscovered possibilities. I suspect that part of the success of The Aquarian Conspiracy is its very title, and the promise of being let in on a secret, or being part of a hidden, slightly risky underground.

Perhaps we can create "benevolent conspiracies" to alter our work-place, creating hidden networks within an organization to change the way work gets done. Beginning by identifying a few "kindred spirits" anywhere in the organization, ignoring formal hierarchies, a group can form and begin to promulgate new ideas, new ways of looking at work, new ways of being together.

Particularly useful are those little projects that have a strong flavor of whimsy to them. The group cultivates an aura of secretiveness, but the real secret is that anyone in the organization who asks can become part of the fun. I suspect that the key to success with these ventures is informality, secret openness across all "party lines," and playful anonymity. I’ve seen some wonderful things happen as a result of mysterious tongue-in-cheek memos or newsletters, surprise parties with the information passed around word-of- mouth (but reaching everyone). No one takes credit, so everyone gets credit (or everyone is the culprit!). A great deal of camaraderie can develop that can make the most mundane tasks fun.

We create a lot of phony boundaries in our lives: boundaries between work and play; boundaries between people based on notions of status; boundaries between ourselves as people and ourselves as business participants. And I suspect that the best of what is occurring in the workplace results from viewing the organizations in which we participate as extensions and expansions of who we are as individuals. What might happen if we personalize what seems impersonal, see potential friends in strangers, release our hearts in the workplace as well as at home?

One day, while watering the garden, I watched as sun through the spray of water created a rainbow. And as I watched, I was struck by the possibility that perhaps the rainbow was always there. Only in the interplay of sun and water was the perennial rainbow revealed. Perhaps it is like that when we work, our actions, our words, our intentions revealing the rainbow inherent in the business setting.

This new image begins to grow for me, a mythos seeded in the season’s turning, fertilized by the past. No longer cold and alien, there is warmth and friendship here – a line of song from one group of workers, laughter from another. That vast corner office now features a ping-pong table, an area for quiet conversations, a spot for gazing out the window at fields and trees and sky. There is a dancelike fluidity to the place, discipline and whimsy woven together in motion and form.

And that steel-hard, distant male executive? I find him in the organization’s roof-garden, shirt collar open and sleeves rolled, weeding the vegetables for the company cafeteria. His edges seem a little blurry now, and there’s a smile on his face. And it’s easy to talk about the needs of the business, easy to hear his seasoned wisdom as we both work along a row of lettuce.

The profits are still there, and in fact have grown – but no longer do they go to line the pockets of the few at the top. Now, those profits are being used to expand the creative, human possibilities of the company, and to support the people and community that make the creativity possible. Resources shared among friends, not capital hoarded by strangers.

Throughout it all, a palpable synergy, each person contributing, empowered in their own unique ways to participate in creating something more than a simple summing of individuals. Androgynous without losing texture and diversity, a rich garden of unfolding possibilities has replaced what once was a cold, bleak landscape.

I think the dream is possible – if we are willing to quit clinging to a false sense of powerlessness, to reduce our fascination with the weeds of success. As we evoke in ourselves the light that can reveal the rainbow, and see our unique place regardless of what roles we play, distance and boundary blur. We can ask nothing less of ourselves. The garden awaits our heart-felt participation.

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