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The Demand for Voice

2003 October 8
by Malcolm Sleath

At one time people had the meaning of their lives bestowed upon them. They were a wife, mother, father, husband, employee, whatever – the meaning of their life was wrapped up in the station in society in which they found themselves. It was a given.

Occasionally an individual would break out of the mould. They would penetrate the boundaries and demand to be seen in the way they wanted to be seen. They would attempt to be their own person. But they were exceptions.

Now, everybody is looking for his or her own meaning. People are interested in spiritual values, they want to explore the connection between mind and body, and they do not expect to see themselves in the same way throughout the whole of their lives. They expect to change and grow. It is no longer odd to ask yourself the question, “Who am I?” We are expected to find out for ourselves.

During this journey of exploration we have to be able to take care of our physical needs. We need somewhere to rest our head, and a way of putting food on the table. And because the number of opportunities for truly creative work roles is limited, we often find ourselves working inside a predefined system. There are rules, procedures, priorities and corporate values. There is the pressure to conform. This applies more and more even to knowledge workers. If the organisation doesn’t prescribe clear limits, the professional indemnity insurance probably will.

So what do people do? They split off their search for meaning and pursue it elsewhere. They don’t really expect to be that fulfilled at work. They don’t necessarily expect working life to make sense, and they tend to distrust those who think it does. Not all people are like this, but a lot are.

This gives rise to a situation where a large proportion of consumers do not trust the corporate world, but are the very same people who are working within it. You don’t have to look far to see why things can go badly wrong. Work is often seen as a meaningless ritual. Broadly speaking you do what people expect you to do and you get paid. And you hope that one day you will have accumulated enough funds to enable you to escape. If you don’t think you will have the wherewithal to do it out of earnings, you will hope the value of your property increases so that you can trade down and live somewhere with less pressure, and if that isn’t an option you buy lottery tickets.

My point is that your client may have a burning need for self-expression, a desire to speak with his or her own voice, but one of the last places they will probably seek to exercise it is in the work place. They have a work identity as an agent of the firm. They often have a quite different identity as a private individual. They have learned not to mix the two. That’s how an apparently intelligent and sensitive person can sit in front of you and spout corporate gobbledegook without batting an eyelid.

Dealing with people when they are acting their role as an agent of the firm can be very limiting. Corporate policies and plans often contain inherent contradictions, glossed over because of internal politics. A creative resolution is very hard to find in those circumstances. Ideally you need a guide who can lead you through the maze, and possibly be a champion or sponsor who can help you be in the right place at the right time.

You may be lucky to engage with your client at a personal level, but that brings it’s own problems, and is often best treated as an experience in its own right. It’s not a one-way street. How much of yourself do you actually want to expose while you are in your work role? And the last thing you want is to place your client in a position where they are saying, “I would do this as an individual, but I can’t do it as an agent of the firm”. Apart from anything else that will make them feel powerless and uncomfortable.

Sometimes, sitting between the two, almost as an arbitrator, is their professional identity: the set of values and priorities they carry around with them from situation to situation. In this role they can see through the clutter. At heart they would probably like to achieve a sensible resolution. If you want to influence corporate clients in an honest and decent way, it seems to me that the way forward is to engage their professional identity.

Away from the immediate matter in hand, find out what professional values they hold, and how they try to express them on a daily basis. I believe that engaging your client’s professional identity, listening to and nurturing that aspect of ‘who they are’ is one of the most effective ways of cutting through corporate cynicism, and introducing effective change.

This article is inspired by The Support Economy. Next: The Quest for Connection.