They had moved beyond the anxious beginning in the teambuilding process, that time when people often feel they might not be successful. Thus, they were less concerned that clashes between conflicting agendas within the team might cause the entire effort to fail. Throughout the day there had been several breakthroughs, insights, and clarifications related to why, in the past two years, they had thought what they had thought and had done what they had done. The feeling and mood in the group was improving but it was still constrained and cautious.
They had not yet connected at the level of soul. They had not yet had the sort of experience that would allow them to notice their common ground — that understanding at a deep level that connects individuals like a string connects beads. When that kind of connection occurs, people recognize it in the same way they recognize, for example, that beads do not make a necklace without the string. They know that the beads are the necklace they see but that the string provides the invisible connection between the beads.
Like the string of the necklace, a connection on the level of soul is deep inside — through the very center of our beings. The breakthroughs that create this connection become the essence of people’s individual and collective ability to serve as human community for each other even as the group as an entity does the difficult work of achieving its objective goals.
For a necklace to be formed, the holes in the beads must be revealed. One single string of connectedness must then be thread through the holes. Thus, a whole new entity is created without dimming the beauty of each specific, differentiated bead. Each bead maintains its individuality while the collective emerges as a magnificent new entity.
To add to the complexity of their task as a team, this group was far more diverse than a handful of beads. This was a group of jewels of every kind — a diversity task force. So, the necklace had to have a special composition, a special balance.
Beyond the anticipated complexity of attempting to focus everyone on a common goal, this group also had the additional complexity of a mixture of backgrounds, colors, and beliefs that ran the gamut of taboos, sensitivities, and learned prejudices about others who are in some way obviously different.
On a diversity task force, by definition, there are always many agendas and much passion about which agenda is most important and most urgent. When individuals feel they have to compete with other agendas for air time, resources, and action, what shows up is conflict and some amount of confusion, despair, and fear.
We were in a room together now because the glimmer of some of the jewels had become dim on the surface. This had occurred as people sincerely tried to work together toward their common objective goals but without deep connectedness. As a result, they were walking on eggshells and skirting around critical issues. To their credit as individuals, they had already demonstrated the strength of their passions for progress because, in spite of the conflict, they had hung in there. But as a team they were faltering.
Some members were considering leaving the task force if this teambuilding event didn’t “work.” And why not? These people were volunteering their time to make their organization a better place for everyone. No one was picking up the slack for them on their already more-than-full-time jobs upon which their performance was judged. In fact, it cost some of them a lot to be part of this task force. Many were actively struggling against their managers’ perceptions that what they are doing, this “diversity stuff,” was a low priority.
Following are two of many revelations that occurred within this group of people.
I could feel Mark’s fear all the way across the room. I knew exactly what it was about. I had interviewed him and everyone else in the group before the teambuilding session. The information I received in these interviews would allow me to glimpse the overlapping themes of their individual concerns and dreams.
In our interview, Mark had initiated a conversation about feeling compelled to tell the group that he is gay. He felt it was necessary if he was to work with the others at a high level of integrity. He talked about what a big risk it was for him and how terrified he felt. Yet, this was a diversity task force and his deeper concern or interest was about what it is like for gays and lesbians to work in this organization.
I offered to support him. I was also clear, however, that no matter what he said in the interview, I would leave the final choice, responsibility, and timing of his disclosure up to him. I encouraged him to trust his intuition and his heart.
Now we return the actual teambuilding session. Everyone was nervous. Living boldly and openly amidst of the challenges of diversity is not abstract. It requires personal risk and breaks conventional rules. Because everyone else was also nervous for their own personal reasons, they didn’t notice Mark’s high level of anxiety.
I was fairly certain he wasn’t tracking with much of anything that was going on. I saw him wipe the perspiration from his hands onto his pants. I saw him breathing fast and shallow from above his Adam’s apple. Having little or no air in his lungs, he would occasionally breathe deeply in the form of a gasp or a sigh.
I, too, was nervous. I was thinking, “Now what have I gotten all of us into? Am I prepared enough, skilled enough, to help him and the group through the conversation that needs to occur if he chooses to risk it? Had I advised him well? Should I have discouraged rather than encouraged him?”
That last self-doubting question helped to shake me back to my Self, my own awareness. I may not always like the truth but I know that the truth works. I may not like the risk of vulnerability but I know it leads to connectedness. I may not always like the reactions of others, but I know that the truth and risk of vulnerability bring integrity, depth, trust, and connectedness. This is how we reveal the holes through the center of us as jewels so the string can form our connection.
These thoughts helped me to remember that “I” — the apparent ego part of me — does not do this work alone. I remembered that if I stay as close to completely present as I am able and if I trust my own intentions, I will know what to do. Whatever I do in those moments will be coming from the center of me where I am deeply and invisibly connected to the Whole. These thoughts helped me to remember that something major was at stake here. We were gambling with Mark’s vitality, his creativity, and his breath, his very life force.
As I watched Mark barely breathing, I reminded myself to breathe deeply. Then I reminded myself of what Angeles Arrien suggests in The Four Fold Way: stay present, listen for what has heart and meaning, speak the truth, be open to outcome rather than attached.
I have no memory of what was actually happening prior to Mark’s disclosure to the group. Whatever it was, it was going well. Some safety net had been established and the precedent for taking risks had been set.
Mark cleared his throat. He said, “Ah” He fidgeted in his chair and his voice quivered. “Ahm, this is, this is going to be, this is very difficult for me.” Now tears streamed down his face. “This is very difficult for me because I’m scared. I’m scared of what you’ll think when I tell you what I need to say.” He couldn’t go on. He bent his head forward and wept. Then, as the tears subsided for the moment, he took several labored, deep breaths.
Others were watching him, and more, they were with him. These people had been working with him for months. My guess is that many of them already knew his secret. But it had not, until now, been anything that could be openly noted or talked about directly.
He tried again. “You see, I’m, well, I’m gay.” Sigh. “There. I finally said it. It’s the very first time I’ve ever said it to people I work with. I’m sick of keeping it a secret. I’m sick of hiding and wondering who knows and whether it matters. I’m sick of fearing I’ll accidentally disclose something, offend somebody, or miss a detail.
“And I’m scared. I’m scared you’ll think of me differently or that you’ll put distance between us. I’m scared of being rejected because of something that is important to me and part of who I am. I’m scared of being rejected here, by you, for something that has nothing whatever to do with my work.”
When he was finished, a “silence that connects” filled the room. He had opened the space for the soul of the group to fill. What followed is best described as a nonphysical, gentle reaching in. It was as though Mark was in the center of a circle and others were reaching in toward him.
Someone asked permission to ask him a question. He said, “Okay.” She asked. He answered. Tender and gentle. His breathing changed. He began to relax. Someone else said something compassionate. Another expressed support and acceptance. Someone else said, “Thank you,” and admitted his own naivete about the gay experience and his resulting awkwardness.
Every — and I mean every — comment was appropriate. Actually, appropriate doesn’t begin to express it. We sat together in an absolutely perfect moment. There was nothing else in the whole world beyond what was going on in that room among this particular group of people.
Then Mark began to weep again. This time the tears were not based in fear and anxiety. Rather, they were based in gratitude. He cried and said, “Thank you.” And again he said, “Thank you.” And again he said, “Thank you.” And again.
I don’t remember what else happened that day. I do remember thinking that while we had experienced a euphoric moment, none of us knew what might happen next as a result of the risk Mark had taken. A moment of risk is one thing but living in the world with the consequences of that risk is something else entirely.
A year and a half later I was invited to work with the task force again. They had been doing some wonderful work. In fact, they had accomplished all of the goals they had set for themselves. Now they had a new set of problems, but this time the problems were sweet. First, their membership was changing. They had become so close and had done so well at breaking taboos around language and experience that they requested assistance to help in letting go of old members and integrating new members.
As an ad hoc group they had created recognition for the issues and needs around diversity in their organization. Now it was time to figure out how to transfer their work into the mainstream organization and to decide what their new role was to be — and even if it was to be.
Before they could begin work, however, they needed to check in with each other. Mark, now the designated co-leader of the group, waited until near the end to speak. Again he had trouble getting started.
“I don’t know why this is so hard for me. I just get so emotional. I’m just going to jump in.” He took a long breath and let out a sigh. “This last year — since I came out in this group — has been the best year of my life. I can hardly believe it. Your support gave me the courage to come out to the organization as a whole. I remember the day I signed my name to an e-mail notice that was going to every person in the organization. It was announcing a meeting of the gay and lesbian network and inviting anyone who wished to join us to do so. I actually had a friend stand behind me for support as I pressed the ‘Send’ key. And then I thought, ‘Oh, God!’ But also I thought, ‘There! It’s done.’
“None of the things I feared have come to pass. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. I have actually been rewarded. I have been able to spend time with our president talking about what it’s like for me and others who are gay. I know he’s interested partly because there are a lot of gay people in this organization. But also, he seems genuinely interested in his own learning and growth.
“My work has blossomed. I am so much more creative and productive than I have ever been before. I can’t believe it! Now I can notice just how much energy was going into worrying and covering my tracks — such a waste!
“Each time I come out to someone new or in some new situation, it’s still a risk. But it will never be the risk it was with you. I thank you all for that.” He spoke these words with his eyes glistening and his face glowing. “It’s an honor and a privilege to know you and work with you.”
Because of the delicate and complex circumstances of this group and because of my own passion for human relationships and differences, I chose to articulate a possible vision for them in that initial teambuilding session.
First, my vision was that they would allow their differences to be present; that they would hold differences not as conflict but rather as precious art to be viewed with love, examined in detail, admired for creativity and beauty, and handled with care.
At the same time, I suggested that they give themselves permission to have conflict — lots of it. My vision was that they would really get into the issues and learn from each other; that they would drop the facade and the language taboos; that they would speak and listen to each other. What a rich opportunity!
Secondly, my vision was that they would model within themselves individually and within the task force as a whole whatever it was they envisioned for the organization at large; that they would commit to learning and integrating for themselves what it was they wanted to teach others. In other words, that they would live together in the way they wanted everyone in the organization to live together. I suggested that if people in the organization saw them doing this, it would teach far more than any training program ever could. And, further, I imagined for them that the measurement of success would be that people wanted to be on the task force rather than out of it.
Third, my vision was that they would find a common, higher-order goal that encompassed, but also transcended, their individual and “special interest group” agendas. I proposed that when they found a higher-order goal, not only would they work toward it, but also that they would entrust their individual agendas to each other. In other words, the black person would work the gay person’s agenda, the working mother would work the disabled person’s agenda, the Hispanic would work the white male agenda.
And now, it was their turn to share their visions. I had asked the members of the group to draw pictures representing what they individually felt passionate about. I thought it would be a useful step forward for them to articulate their own and witness each others’ visions of what this group could be and do; of what the broader organization would look like and become as a result of whatever they chose as their work.
People were sharing crayons, pastels, and other art supplies. They were working in twos and threes, engaging in casual, lighthearted conversation. Having witnessed some of the previous clouds of suppressed or misdirected anger and frustration, this engagement was, in and of itself, significant. It was heartwarming to see their eyes connecting and to hear laughter as they critiqued each others’ artistic skills and apologized for their own. As I wandered around I saw that their drawings were laden with rainbows and flowers and stick people. One person’s drawing was different, however.
Andrea was sitting very quietly and by herself. She was not drawing. A large, clean, white piece of poster board sat on her lap. In her hand she held a pencil. She had no other art supplies near her. Her face was somber, her eyes had the glossiness that precedes tears.
In situations such as this, I know people do what they need to do — no matter what task I suggest. Also, given the freedom and the safety, people do what needs to be done for the group as a whole to move forward. That’s what happened in this situation.
People began sharing their drawings. The pictures were naively sweet and simple, while the thoughts behind the drawings were touching, profound and — most importantly — universal. The common desires of the heart were showing up.
But it was Andrea’s response to the activity that really moved us forward at the level of soul. What she gave offered the group was a quantum leap — out of time. Months of hard work at the head level could not match the few moments when she spoke from her heart and gave of her soul’s suffering.
She sighed and said, “Well, I didn’t do the assignment. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t do it.” She very deliberately put her pencil down and slowly held up her large white piece of poster board. She pointed at the center. “Do you see that small black pencil dot there in the center of this white paper?” she asked.
“That black dot is me. And the white paper is our organization. I feel like that black dot in this organization — alone and small and unseen.” Tears streamed down her face.
Everyone in the room was quiet. Even breathing seemed to have stopped. She wept and talked about her first days in the company; about how people said she only got the job because she is black; about how being black never goes away; about how people pretend not to notice; about how white she is expected to act. She spoke about how at lunch the conversation doesn’t include her and is outside her experience. She felt that no one wanted to hear about her background — like how she was shot at in high school.
Andrea was quiet for awhile. Everyone respected the interlude. Then she spoke about her vision. She described what it would feel like for her if this organization really valued her. Her vision was larger than that, however. She spoke about her children and how her vision of the workplace was that it would become more open and inclusive, and not so hard for them as it has been for her.
Silence emerged once again. It was not an awkward or disapproving silence. It was a beautiful silence. It was the kind of silence that warms rather than isolates; a silence of compassion and wordless comprehension; a silence that accompanies the process in which the many feel equally vulnerable with the one. It was a silence of connectedness at the level of the soul.
Mark, Andrea, and each of the other members of the group, as they were moved to do so, offered up individual, personal arenas of pain. Each spoke of places within them that seemed to be the holes through which the previously unknown, unclaimed string was able to link them as a precious, priceless group of jewels.
Through risking by being vulnerable, they were able to touch both their own and each others’ souls. They had the opportunity and privilege of caring for each others’ pain without fixing it. They were able to simply witness and to be with each other. They came to more fully understand each other, and to feel and be who they truly were together.
Risking changed everything. Bridges were created. These bridges crossed the deepest, most painful parts of individual human experience. These bridges allowed everyone in the room — no matter what color, creed, gender, sexual preference, or nationality — to be linked over chasms that had previously seemed too broad to ever be traversed.
The results of the team’s process relative to its productivity were stunning. In very little time, the group developed a common vision and strategy, divided the tasks and went to work. They were aligned!
Almost four years later, I had the opportunity to reconnect on separate occasions with both Mark and Andrea. I wanted to see how each had interpreted our experience. What I learned was beyond what I had expected. The experience was a watershed for each of them…as it had been for me. I also learned how each currently lives with the ramifications of having taken risks and of having participated in such a soul-filled experience at work.
Not all of the results have been positive — as in “they lived happily ever after.” Yet, in the context of soul work, All that happens is positive. As David Whyte says in The Heart Aroused, “We think we exist only when our sense of ourselves is growing and getting larger, when we are succeeding or stepping up to the line for promotion. If things are dying or falling away, we think there is something ‘wrong’ with us.” And, further, “The soulful approach to work admits and allows the yeast of loss into our work lives.”
Mark left this corporation. Now, two years later, his appearance has changed dramatically. He is broader in the shoulders. He looks more mature and dresses much more originally. In his words, “There was something about being so closeted that actually forced me to be physically smaller than I am now. The pressures to fit in, to be a certain way, were so enormous. I’m physically bigger now. I would have to shrink to go back to where I was before.
“I felt young — like a kid — inside the company. My feeling was that there were adults to please and I was the one who had to please them.”
He spoke of being angry. “I can’t tell if the anger I feel when I think about that time is a result of where I am now or of how I felt then. Maybe I was angry then and only now can afford to notice it.”
He also commented, “Eventually my coming out at work stopped my career. I applied for supervisory positions five times and I didn’t get any of them even though my reviews had always been exemplary. In my perspective it was because of homophobia. I finally got the courage to bring it to my manager’s attention. Shortly thereafter I was offered a promotion. It was too much.”
Finally, he noted the transcendent level of his process. “Part of what I did was to lay the path for others to come out, to bring their whole selves to work.”
Andrea still works within the same corporation but has changed positions. “I’ve changed jobs and location. Yet to this day I can pick up the phone and call people from the task force and they are there for me. The connection is still there.” It probably always will be.
She muses, “It’s amazing how much stuff got articulated with a little tiny dot. I think about that and the impact I’ve seen within the group. If only we could bottle it and carry it out into the rest of the world. Then I could hold up my piece of paper and say, ‘This is the way I feel’ without having to hear, ‘No, you don’t feel that way. You can’t be feeling that way. We are a corporation that supports diversity.'”
Further, she reminisces, “There were absolutely no barriers after that. I’m still hearing about stuff that got resolved between people that I didn’t know existed at the time. The process we went through is still being talked about. It came up in a meeting just two weeks ago.
“Each and every boundary and barrier was erased. We all spoke. We were heard and listened to. So we got stuff done.”
Andrea also laid out her new pain. “The things that happened in the group were so wonderful. However, I had to go back out into the real world. I saw people not being promoted and being fired because of style — when we were supposedly encompassing differences in style.
“I now find myself unable to directly say anything when I feel prejudice. As a black woman I am seen as manipulative, as serving my own agenda, and as acting in reverse prejudice.
“The openness and honesty in the group gave me a new sense of what work relationships could be. I had a new sense of hope in the group. But that’s also when I began to feel a true sense of hopelessness as well.”
The soul within each of us longs to be seen, felt, and heard. Preventing this from happening consumes enormous amounts of our energy. We have to work very hard to hide and protect the deepest, most vulnerable parts of ourselves — the parts that, paradoxically, need the most care and nurturing.
It is the hole through the center of each bead that allows each one to be inextricably and intimately connected with the others. It is the hole — which metaphorically represents vulnerability — that gives each bead an opportunity to experience and offer meaning in a new way — as part of a larger whole, a necklace. It is the soul — which is vulnerability — that gives each of us an opportunity to experience and offer meaning in a new way — as part of the larger Whole.
First published in Rediscovering the Soul of Business: A Renaissance of Values, edited by Bill DeFoore and John Renesch, New Leaders Press, 1995.