Bringing Us Back to Life: Building Community in Business Through Ritual and Story

by Seth Kahan.

When I visit corporate offices, I so often experience a sense of separation from nature, as if people have forgotten about the sun, the moon, the seasons. Day after day, in climate-controlled hallways and putty-colored cubes, people work ceaselessly to further their organization’s objectives. Have they lost touch with something essential, with the life force and all of its nuanced expressions? Organizations are the home of education, the home of health care, the home of government, the home of business, the home of philanthropy. Organizations are today the home of most human activity on the face of the earth. What will be the impact if organizations are out of touch with life?

I have had an interest in community development ever since I can remember. In the late 70s I began doing experimental theater and enjoyed crafting and producing events where the audience took an active role. My “ritual performance art” in the ’80s always included personal storytelling—my own and my audience’s—as a way to build group meaning. In the early ’90s, my artwork investigated the world of nature through ceremony. I performed in the wilderness, brought the seasons to life in solstice celebrations and plumbed my own depths through sweat lodges and vision quests. But, it wasn’t until the ’90s that I was asked to draw on my art in my work. Steve Denning, Knowledge Management (KM) Program Director of the World Bank, invited me to join the small team that had begun to steer our large organization toward a new culture. Steve encouraged me to draw on my experience outside the bank, including my many years as a ritual artist and storyteller.

Our team began to use storytelling as a means to break the ice in meetings. Denning worked, with great success, at using storytelling to evoke systemic change in the organization. He developed “springboard” stories (see his book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001). I drew on forms I had developed in ceremonies. We didn’t attempt to get people to understand storytelling. Instead, we used storytelling because it worked so well.

I began to receive requests to visit other organizations. In many companies, I spoke about my work as a storyteller and experience with ceremony. I brought ceremonial objects into the workplace, sharing my symbols of community. Several years ago, I was invited to speak to an inter-governmental group of Chief Information Officers (CIOs). They had gathered to explore how organizations were building successful KM initiatives in cultures in which information hoarding, competitiveness and secrecy were the norm. They invited me to share how my background and experience could help to build community in a business setting. I wanted to do more than talk about it. I wanted the CIOs to experience this type of community building. Let me tell you the story of what happened that afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C.

The meeting took place at 18th and F,just down the street from the Corcoran Gallery and around the corner from the White House. There were about 30 people present. It was a large, circular room with people sitting behind arced desks in semi-circles. I walked into the center of the room and stood next to a flip chart.

I opened the session by sharing how I made the journey from performance artist to Senior Information Officer at the World Bank. I have learned that how we share is equally important as what we share, so I started with something I could do in a relaxed and comfortable way. I modeled the same vulnerability that I would later ask of them by sharing a personal perspective. I connected my interest in rites of passage with the social transformation of organizations. I saw our companies bumbling along, trying to help staff move from a dependent, childlike relationship with the organization to an adult connection through which shared leadership and more meaningful contributions are possible. The murmurs and nodding of heads in my audience told me the CIOs could relate to this.

I asked my audience to listen to a poem that I often used in my ritual performances. This poem is called the “Prayer of the Three Times.” (One source of the prayer is World as Lover, World as Self by Joanna Macy.)  I told them that when the poem was over, I would ask them to share something about what they experienced as listeners. They shifted in their seats, noticeably uncomfortable. I have seen this before, and I reassured them that their participation is voluntary. I let them know that any response is acceptable, including, “The poem did nothing for me,” or “I didn’t like the poem.” All I asked is that they listen to the poem and share their experience.

With this introduction, I picked up a Tibetan prayer gong, a small bowl that makes a wonderful sound when struck, and asked them to listen quietly. The poem was improvised. Here is a version of what I said:

Gonggg… (pause)

If time was not an obstacle and we could invite all of our ancestors to be here, present with us’ what would they tell us? If our grandparents … and their parents … could be here, what would they have to say about our work in the world?

And if the ancestors of other species could be here: eagles, elephants, snakes, and fish … the mountains that are now dust, the clouds that have become part of the sea’ the rivers that are now dry … what messages would they have for us and how we live our lives?

Hear me,ancestors, you are not trapped by the narrow views we hold, by the constraints we place upon ourselves, and the politics of our workplace… What do you have to tell us here, today, about what we have to offer the world?

Gonggg… (pause)

If time was not an obstacle and we could invite all of the children-yet-to-be-born here with us now, what would they tell us?

If we invited the children-yet-to-be-born of all species: the caribou and antelope’ the coral snake,the currents not yet formed deep in oceans,the clouds not yet assembled, and the winds not yet blown … and our own children … and their children … and their children …

Hear me,children-yet-to-be-born, help us remember that the world we are building is the world you will inherit. Help us to create a world worthy of your spirit.

Gonggg… (pause)

If space was not an obstacle and we could invite all beings in the world to be here’ present with us now, what could we do together?

If the bushes that line our streets’ the clouds that fill our skies, the mountains on the horizon, the great seas and rivers’ the ravens, the elephants, the mountain lions, and the salamanders’ the strangers on the other side of the world, and our own children, partners, lovers, friends, and colleagues could all gather together … could we lean on each other, learn from each other, and move forward together?

What could we … would we … do?

Gonggg… (pause)

I am silent, and the room is silent. It was one of those moments when an entire gathering was completely still, as if we were suspended in time. Everyone was together, all consciousness drawn into the moment… hovering, listening, being.

I took out my “talking stick.” It’s a ceremonial stick that was made for me by a Cherokee medicine woman. It’s visually stimulating, adorned with traditional symbols: fur and antlers, feathers and paint. Every nuance is rich with meaning. I explained a few of the symbols as they were explained to me. I told the group that I was not going to be indoctrinating them into an alternative spirituality group, but that we would use the stick as a symbol. The stick would be our symbol of sharing truth: truth with a little “t,” not a big “T.” I was looking for individual truth, the kind that comes from speaking honestly. I explained that we would pass the stick around and everyone had the opportunity to share. It was also okay to pass, not saying anything. And, it was okay to speak on an unrelated topic if that’s your truth. Finally, it’s okay to just hold the stick in silence.

When I offered the stick, there was a pause. I have come to learn that there is almost always a pause before the first sharing. I think that some silence is necessary for thoughtful sharing. After a bit, someone takes the stick. It’s my turn to listen.

One CIO shared how the poem reminded her that she missed her parents. They died just three years before. She recalled how each guided her in subtle and small ways, how she depended on them. Now that they’re gone, she’s on her own. She thought of them when I mentioned “ancestors,” and she wondered what they would think of her work in KM and what they would tell her if they were still alive.

A gentleman from a large organization known for its secrecy and close relationship to the U.S. Department of Defense wondered aloud, “How will my organization’s goals contribute to the world in which my grandchildren will grow up?” He told of the culture of invulnerability and competitiveness within his group, and reflected on what these norms imply about core values. He ended by speculating on what contributions he could make as CIO to see his organization reach its human potential.

A consultant in the group shared some of her experiences conducting corporate interventions. She said this is one of the quickest techniques she has ever seen for engaging people in the deeper implications of their work lives. She connected the experience to ancient ceremonies in cultures the world over and wondered what treasures we have lost in our rush to be civilized.

The storytelling unfolded in a quiet and relaxed pace as people took the time to let deep thoughts surface and listen to each other without interruption.

Soon it was time to close. There seemed to be a consensus that we had only just begun to discover who was in the room, beyond the job titles, and what the deeper issues were that concerned us. It had become apparent that by calling the whole person forward to discuss business issues we got a much more thorough perspective. Our increased rapport helped us to draw on personal experiences that were not normally available as resources in the business world. After we broke, people lingered for a long time, discussing what happened and how they could apply it when they returned to their organizations. People called me aside to tell me again and again, “Important qualities of our community emerged with each sharing. We got to know each other in essential and relevant ways.”

What happened here? Is this type of activity a legitimate contribution in the world of business? I think so. This type of community storytelling invites the whole person into the workplace conversation-tacit knowledge and all. Storytelling in a community context holds the potential to revitalize the way we do business. This is a healing, and I find organizations responsive.

The end product of this type of interaction is people working better together. Communities are nurtured, and social capital-the trust, reputation and the shared values that contribute to a healthy culture-is increased and fortified. Work teams gain a deeper appreciation of members’ strengths and weaknesses. The authentic participation of staff members creates a platform for a higher quality of work. Yes, this ancient form of storytelling can contribute to the world of business. It brings our human community back to its deeper purposes. Storytelling brings business back to life.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003. Some of this article first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Information Outlook.

Seth Kahan has been successfully changing and improving performance in organizations for over 14 years. He helped spearhead the World Bank’s enterprise-wide knowledge management initiative. He developed the first institution-wide community program, working with the president and senior management team. He was responsible for building communities of practice among the Bank’s 1100 information service providers around the world. Seth was selected to serve as a “Center Visionary” to the Center for Association Leadership in Washington, D.C., for pioneering work in organizational community development and storytelling. Seth is a consultant, writer, and speaker for conferences and conventions. As a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for Narrative Studies, he writes on the applications of storytelling in organizations.

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