Employee Engagement, Emotional Intelligence … and Poetry?

(Originally published on my LinkedIn Blog)

Corporate Poet Laureate

High levels of employee engagement are widely considered to be a valuable indicator of organisational health. However, numerous Gallup and other surveys over recent years continue to report obdurately slow progress in engagement, and in stanching the bleed of hundreds of billions of dollars in costs suffered by organisations annually.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) – and empathy in particular – plays an important role in employee engagement. Despite Adam Grant’s recent controversial blog post, the ability to successfully understand, express, and engage with the nuances of emotion remains valued by many, if not most, people connected with organisations (including, unsurprisingly, Daniel Goleman himself, and also others.)

Events or personalities triggering, or even vaguely suggesting, negative emotions can play havoc through the ‘emotional contagion’ effect within a low-EI organisation. According to Neal Ashkanasy of the University of Queensland, ‘emotional contagion’ is an affliction that can spread pretty rapidly within a group of people, infected by the smallest of alarming/elevating emotional cues. Carnegie Mellon economist George Loewenstein puts moods and fears among the ‘visceral factors’ that “have a disproportionate effect on behavior and tend to ‘crowd out’ virtually all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factor.”

While, following famous articles by Goleman and others, a robust books-and-consulting industry has grown up around EI, studies by researchers such as David C. Kidd and Emanuele Castano have latterly begun to suggest that readings of literature (Chekhov and Dickens, for example) may be better at lifting component measures of EI such as empathy.

Other researchers have employed poetry – the earliest, purest, and arguably most emotionally rich form of literature – in helping develop EI. (See here and here).

As the late Jacob Bronowski once said, all that we constantly learn during the course of our lives is “an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” But not all uncertainty is adventure; so, perhaps, within our organisations, we could partly deal with the vicissitudes of uncertainty using the greater emotional certainty of poetic beauty.

In the modern organisation, periods of change and transition are constantly occurring at the personal, business unit, project, or corporate level. These may trigger emotions ranging from celebration, excitement, apprehension to consternation. These emotions do not always lend themselves to a good grip, and their significance and implications are often hard to articulate well across the broadest swathe of people.

Could poetry composed specially to mark such occasions help in easing into these transitions? I have a strong hunch that it would be good for the emotional climate within organisations, although the benefits might vary somewhat between different national cultures (the ‘we-look-down-on-emotions’ culture in some countries in the Anglosphere, for example) and industry sectors (sports clubs; national reserve banks?).

The pragmatic Classical Greeks recognised the importance of poetry by appointing a Poet ‘Laureate’ (the latter word essentially means ‘having your head adorned with a laurel wreath’). The practice was revived in Renaissance Europe, and continues in many nations and territories around the globe. According to Wikipedia, the Poet Laureate is ‘often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions’.

I propose that organisations begin appointing/electing Poet Laureates.

The nurturing of a sense of group identity is an important part of the development of a group’s EI. The ritual of electing a Poet Laureate (through an organisation-wide contest, perhaps), and of enjoying poetry to mark shared organisational experiences may well help in the strengthening of group identity.

Only a part of the whole gamut of organisational challenges related to engagement and emotional intelligence can realistically be attenuated through this proposal, of course. Modern organisations are far too complex and dynamic entities for me to have inflated expectations from any single initiative.

Responses and suggestions from you would be greatly welcome.

Opportunities may exist for using short, keepsake poems (or even limericks!) to mark events such as welcoming a new team member or bidding one goodbye, launching a new project or announcing the completion of another, acquisitions and spinoffs, major contracts inked, and the like. (Readers who know their poetics – and their organisations – far better than my modest grasp of literature may well have better suggestions.)

I tend to turn to literature during periods of significant change in life, in an instinctive bid to gain insight and perhaps inspiration from intensely and masterfully ‘condensed’ life on the page. C.P. Cavafy, for example, has in the past extended a metaphorically powerful hand to help still my sway in the face of life’s unpredictable headwinds:

As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

(From Ithaca, by C.P.Cavafy, 1863 -1933)

It would be good to spread the joy and divide the discomfort of transitions within organisations through the use shared, luminous words and prosody, however brief, composed by someone who knows their craft well.

P.S. Just as I was about to publish this blog post, a friend brought to my notice that the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas has a Limerick Committee. (Art Markman, not surprised to see your name on the page!)

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