Making Sense of Nonsense

I wrote this poem for an academic conference and it has since been published in an academic journal.  It’s a little different because it has references at the end and a slightly unusual way of referencing in the poem, just to protect the rhythm.  Here’s the link to the published version, which provides an introduction to the poem and a little explanation:

https://digitalcommons.wpi.edu/oa/vol4/iss1/4/

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

In a world where there’s absence of reason or rhyme

In a life which can feel like 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.

References

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, 40(3) pp. 205-213.

Armstrong, D., Huffington C., Halton, W., Pooley, J. 2004. Working Below the Surface: The Emotional Life of Contemporary Organisations. London: Karnac

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 Journal.com 9(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. 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. Boston: 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. Boston: 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’ 15 (3) 87-96 University of Exeter Centre for Leadership Studies

Knight, J., 2012 Deletion, Distortion and Data Collection, Australasian Journal of Market and Social Research 20 (1) 15-23

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. 75(6) 668-681

 

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.

Songs:

Del Amitri 1989. Nothing Ever Happens, Waking Hours. Oxfordshire: A&M.

Folds, B. 2001. Fred Jones Part 2, Rockin’ the Suburbs. Adelaide: Epic.

Mitchell, J. 1970. The Arrangement, Ladies of the Canyon. Los Angeles: Reprise.

Stevens, C. 1967. Matthew and Son, Matthew and Son. London: Decca.

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