So what does a 17th century English poet have to say about the modern American workplace? Plenty.
Elements of John Donne’s famous passages are quoted as shorthand for ideas we drop casually – “no man is an island” for instance. Or the phrase “for whom the bell tolls” known mostly as Hemingway's title. These words live in our lexicon, but since we are not much in the habit of poetic reflection as a people, these familiar phrases may be ... just words.
I invite you to slow down from the frantic pursuit of productivity and performance for ten minutes to read a portion of Donne’s writing. Don’t worry; it’s not too long. But as with any masterpiece, his words will linger and return with questions and illumination later if we take a little time to consider them.
In particular, I invite you to consider his words with the American workplace in mind. What does he have to say to us in this moment when humiliation, harassment, discrimination, physical threats, and fear at work are being exposed to the light of day? (And if you are reading this from Canada, Australia, Spain, or another country, I'm curious, how does this poem speak to your particular workplace culture and experiences?)
Excerpt from Meditation #17 by John Donne, from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623)
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In our economy marked by individualism and fierce competition, in a culture of isolation and loneliness, the poet reminds us that not only are we not alone but that we are actually interdependent and deeply connected to each other, part of something larger. Your loss is my loss. Your fear is my fear. And by implication, your success and your achievement strengthen me. We matter to each other.
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
I am involved in mankind.
If I am involved in mankind, then Vito’s story from my last post matters to me, your story matters to me. If it can happen to Vito…if it can happen to you … well, you know the rest of that thought.
As decent folks, we want our values and our work lives to be in harmony, so we can go home at night and reflect on our days with peace and satisfaction. We are weary of power plays, of bullying, of meanness, of fear-based management tactics.
While we want people to be responsible and held to account in fairness to all if they are not responsible, we also want to know we’ve not colluded to abuse or tear someone down. We are involved in mankind, and we want to be involved in creating greatness not smallness, health and not harm.
Being involved in mankind is an opportunity to explore leading and teaming differently as a human-centered leader of a human-centered team creating a human-centered workplace.
If the funeral bells toll for us all when there is a loss, then the bells of celebration toll for us all when anyone succeeds.
· When my team member brings their full self to our efforts, I rejoice.
· When my colleague discovers a way through a problem, I am glad.
· When an improvement team tries a new idea and "fails" but learns and tries again, then I too know that I can try and fail and learn and try again.
· When another team succeeds, we all celebrate.
· When someone new joins the organization and finds that their contributions matter, that they can make a difference for customers, that leaders care about their growth, then we all know we matter. We can all make a difference. We can all grow.
When we create a human-centered workplace, we live out those deep connections illuminated by Donne. This starts with heeding the words of the poet, hearing the bells that toll, acknowledging our interdependence, and making a difference by being “involved in mankind.”
Visit the rest of our website for more news and events, books recommendations, background on how this started, and information on research. Join the mailing list to receive notice of new blog posts and news.
Please help spread the Love by sharing this blog with your friends and colleagues. We appreciate you re-posting on social media or forwarding the link. Thank you!