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Making Sense of Nonsense

This workplace confuses us, day after day
The people here do and say things in a way
That has nothing to do with the strategic goals
Or the statement of values or even their roles.
We all do the same, it’s the rule here, I guess
But we don’t know who wrote it or who to address
To find out what the game is – the real one, we mean
Not the ones in the boxes we’ve already seen
With the company name on them, board games with rules
Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Risk (for the fools)
Not the games we’re not playing here – the other game
Where the rules are not written and don’t stay the same
Where the dice have no numbers, there’s no way to score
And the people who win seem to start with much more
In the first place. Where ‘cheating’ cannot be defined
And where every move made here can be undermined
By a counter-move, chess-like, to take out the Knight
What’s the name of the game please? If we knew it we might
Feel less vulnerable, anxious, resentful and scared
If we all had the rule book we’d be more prepared.

On exploring the ‘toxic’ stuff in all the books,
Likened by Frost to cancer, and how climate looks
To writers like Furnham, ‘the weather’ he says
(It is raining on this floor, but sunshine upstairs)
In defence of our reasoning, we’re making sense
Of a meaningless workplace – Argyris and Rench
And Karl Albrecht all get it, don’t know what to do
We’re avoiding all action – Block said we would, too
We’ve learned that we’re helpless, nothing we can do
To avoid the next shocks, some more pain, we are strapped
Down like dogs in our cages, we’re all of us trapped
Just as Seligman told us, we all are agreed
That to fight it is pointless, but somehow we need
To make sense of this nonsense, to find a way through
Truth to power’s not an option (it’s dangerous too)
Vital lies are the spoken words, Goleman asserts
Simple truths are too dangerous, someone gets hurt.

And which words should we use to sound rational when
All around us is nonsense, confusion, again.
Is there any way we can articulate stuff
That we don’t understand – are our feelings enough
To provide us with data, EQ and SQ?
To help us to navigate, find a way through
Zohar, Goleman and Armstrong see meaning as key
And no strategy documents do it for me.
I know about change curves from Bridges et al
I’ve studied addiction, from Schaef and Fassel
There’s mileage in group think – Janis, we agree
That it’s hopeless, we’re helpless, and that we can’t see
In the dark of the dark side, can’t find our way through
The locked doors in the corridors, words so untrue
In the shadows of power, wherever it sits
Foucault says it’s pervasive, just must have my wits
About me to wield it, to compete and win
Take out distant authority (Hirschhorn) –begin
To identify what it is driving this place
To make sense of the madness, step back from the race.

So see with new eyes, discover again
The same thing but differently, then only then
Proust suggests we will see some things for the first time
So I’ll do it in verse, and my verse will rhyme
It will read to the beat of a runaway train
Where no changes affect it, a loss then a gain
Where the passengers change, getting off, getting on
And the train barrels on, destination unknown
(Ben Folds sings of change in the workplace) and so
As this is how it is I will give it a go.
While power corrupts, can I cleanse with my verse?
Just as Eliot says I will speak of diverse
Ways of being and seeing and feeling and quote
Robert Frost who says verse will take life by the throat
Because here we can move beyond all the confines
Of reality (Strati) and find in the lines
Something new, something real, something not wrong or right
But some truth about culture, affect and the plight
Of the worker who struggles to join up the dots
To explain the encounter (Akhtar), the subplots
The gaps in the script, the white on the page
The smiles and the nods, but the feelings of rage
As we sit in the meetings, we mark with a pen
Something meaningless, inconsequential again.

We meet targets, tick boxes, but work’s never done
Something new here to do, like at Matthew and Son
Five days of the week we make nothing much change
For forty plus hours we will rearrange
We’ll say words we must say, play the part we must play
Acquiesce, compromise, more for less, win the prize
For the service, the smiles, the superfluous lies
Emotional labour, so pretty, so nice
Aesthetically pleasing, don’t look at the eyes
At the edges you’ll see there is rage and despair
(Fraiberg) as we focus on those places where
There is life, there is love, there is pain and there’s hope
Where stuff happens that hurts and we struggle to cope
Where relationships start and relationships end
And we witness the death of a loved one or friend
Where our hearts play a part, where the truth can be told
Where we sing, where we cry, where our actions are bold
No, not here, in this meeting, where gods have all left,
(Ayot) where we doodle, and we are bereft
We are stark, we’re alone, we are trapped in this game
The socially structured game with no name.
Economic, material, to have not to be
(Erich Fromm) have no fear, we will never be free
We all know it, an ugly lifelong compromise
Where parenting us comes in heavy disguise
As appraisal (the accent on ‘praise’ so they say)
And we smile, and we hate it, and wish it away
And we know in our souls that we could have been more
Than an attendant lord, a name on the door
To swell a progress, to be of some use
Lying and trying to dodge the abuse
(Eliot, Mitchell) our ragged claws
Scuttling up the thirty three floors
Presenting ourselves as actors might do
In our everyday lives, as they want us to
(Erving Goffman) the script has the words we should speak
But the plot is unclear and the casting is weak
And the space between lines tells us more than the words
Some Pinter-esque, Godot-like theatre absurd

And the metaphors used to make sense of the mess
Are poetic, creative, dynamic, and less
About logic and facts and the way it should be
And much more about feelings, immediacy
“It’s like Alice in Wonderland playing croquet”
“I plait tape for a living, every day”
“It’s a Stepford wives organisation I see”
“It is violent, abusive, it damages me”
“I am building a building but I don’t know what
Kind of building they wanted, I’ve lost the plot”
“There’s a critical mass of the status-quoers
Who ensure nothing changes and nothing occurs”
(Knight) so on and so forth using language that soars
Above logic because it unlocks the locked doors
The researcher will hear and discover, through art,
New landscapes, new meanings (Proust, Darmer) and start
To see depth, to see truth to feel mood and to see
That this everyday poetry provides the key
And the songs and the poems already out there
By the famous and talented, people who care,
Will confirm the validity of what we try
To express, when confused, hoping to simplify
But we learn quite the opposite, that we can’t find
Superficial solutions, when we use our minds
(Weick) assumptions are dangerous, life is a mess
As is ‘organization’, much of it’s a guess

What the poet can do, then, is switch on the light
In the dark, to illuminate paths that we might
Take or not take, depending on what we think best
(James) No route maps or answers then, all of it guessed
By the great and the good and the lowly and bad
By the bosses, the workers, the mums and the dads
By the children whose hands are held but still they guess
Who is right, who is wrong, what is more, what is less
And the music goes back to the start of the song
(Del Amitri) and we feel we must sing along
Sing the words we don’t know to the tune no-one wrote
But we’ll find words to sing and we’ll make up the notes
In the light which shows darkness and nothing to see
Where the words we have written allow us to be
More at ease with the chaos, the nonsense, the game
With no rules that we’re playing; we all do the same
Most times we read out the instructions so well
That we’d almost believe we have something to tell
But the poet says ‘no’, just switch on the light
And you’ll see there is nothing to see, it’s alright
Because that is the simple truth – no vital lies
James and Weick said it for me; to know this is wise
It’s only confusing if we think our song
Is a song we don’t make up as we go along.

This workplace is beautiful, every day
The people here do and say things in a way
That has nothing to do with the strategic goals
Or the statement of values or even their roles
They are artists and poets and tellers of tales
They make and break patterns and go off the rails
As the train barrels on to the place with no name
They find wonder in laughter, they play their own game
They pretend when they have to, they do what they should
They’re as naughty and playful as they can be good
There’s no yellow brick road we can follow because
There isn’t a wise one – no Wizard of Oz
They’re only pretending as well, like we do
All the anguish is gone when we know this is true.
Paradox, ambiguity, chaos and change
Unpredictable lives where we must re-arrange
We are children in grown-ups clothes, suits and high heels
We make up the rules randomly, see how it feels
But we’re good at pretending – we’ve done it for years
It’s just when we believe it it all ends in tears
So the person you thought knew the rules of the game
Doesn’t know any more than you. They’re just the same.

Akhtar S. 2000 Mental Pain and the cultural ointment of poetry International Journal of Psycho-analysis 81 (pt2): 229-243
Albrecht K. 1994 ‘The Northbound Train: Finding the purpose, Setting the Direction, Shaping the Destiny of your Organisation’ USA Amacom
Argyris. C., 1990 Overcoming Organizational Defenses. New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Argyris, C. 1980 Making the Undiscussable and Its Undiscussability Discussable. Public Administration Review Vol 40(3) pp. 205-213.
Armstrong, D. And Huffington C. 2004 Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organisations Tavistock Clinic Series
Ayot, W. 2003 Small Things that Matter London: Olivier Mythodrama Associates Ltd
Beckett, S. 1986 The Complete Dramatic Works London: Faber and Faber
Block, P. 2002 The Answer to How is Yes. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Bridges, W. 1995 Managing Transitions London: Nicholas Brearley
Darmer, P. 2011 The Opportunity of Poetry: Report about Poetry in Organizing and Managing Tamara Volume 9 Issue 1-2
Eliot, T.S. 1969 The Complete Poems and Plays London: Faber and Faber
Fraiberg, A.M. 2010 ''With Edges of Rage and Despair'': Anger and the Poetry of Office Life Journal of Management Inquiry 2010 19: 196
Foucault, M. 1979 Discipline and Punish Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Fromm, E. 1978, To Have or to Be?. London: Abacus
Fromm, E. 2002 The Fear of Freedom. London. Routledge
Frost, R. 1990 The Poetry of Robert Frost Henry Holt & Company Inc
Frost, P. 2003 Toxic Emotions at Work Harvard Business Press
Furnham, A. 1997 The Psychology of Behaviour at Work. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press
Gellerman, S. 1960 The Company Personality Management Review 48, 69-70
Goffman, E. 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life New York: Doubleday
Goleman, D. 1996 Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury
Goleman, D. 1998 Vital Lies, Simple Truths. London: Bloomsbury
Hiroto, D.S. and Seligman, M.E.P. 1975 Generality of learned helplessness in man Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31.311-327
Hirschhorn, L. 2000 The Workplace Within. Massachusetts: MIT Press
Hirschhorn, L. 1998 Reworking Authority. Massachusetts: MIT Press
Janis, J.L. 1972 Victims of Group Think Houghton Mifflin
James, W. 1897/1956 The Will to Believe New York: Dover
Knight, J. 2008 ‘Alice in Wonderland Playing Croquet – a Study of Organisational Helplessness’ in ‘Organisations and People’
Knight, J., 2012 ‘Deletion, Distortion and Data Collection’ in Australasian Journal of Market and Social Research June
Morgan, G. 1998 Images of Organization. San Francisco: Berrett Koehler
Pinter, H. 1978 Plays: Three Reading: Cox and Wyman Ltd
Rentsch, J.R. 1990 Climate and Culture: Interaction and Qualitative Differences in Organizational Meanings Journal of Applied Psychology vol 75, no 6
Schaef, A. Wilson and Fassel, D. 1988 The Addictive Organisation. San Francisco: Harper Collins
Seligman, M.E.P., 1975 Helplessness: On depression, development and death. San Francisco: Freeman
Strati, A. 1999 Organization and aesthetics. CA: Sage.
Weick, K.E. 2004 Mundane Poetics: Searching for Wisdom in Organization Studies. Organization Studies 25(4) 653-668
Zohar, D. 1997. Rewiring the Corporate Brain. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Zohar, D. and Marshall, I. 2000, Spiritual Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Arrangement’
Ben Folds ‘Fred Jones Part 2’
Cat Stevens ‘Matthew and Son’
Del Amitri ‘Nothing Ever Happens’

Dr Jenny Knight


Makes me think that ...

The forces driving human behaviour in the workplace often remain below the surface, not explored or discussed. Day-to-day activity comprises people seeking (or seeking to be seen) to conform to espoused rules, values and performance requirements, while at the same time exhibiting resistance, anger, disruptive and damaging behaviours. How easy is it for us to articulate our feelings of resentment, disempowerment, vulnerability, boredom, disinterest etc. in a situation where we need to ‘be good’? Is there existing poetry shining a light on the darker side of working life? If so is it being used as data? Could poetry be self-help for workers and for organisations?


Dr Jenny Knight

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