We enjoyed reading Josée Méthot and Jessica Marais’ reflection on their organization’s deep dive into expressive change and thought you’d enjoy it too. It was originally posted on the McGill Vision 2020 website as a way of sharing their experience with the larger McGill University community.
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“Many people involved in social purpose work champion the idea that organizations need to become places where we can relate to each other not just as roles but as whole human beings… I think this is true. But what is less well understood is that treating each other as the patchwork, unruly human beings we are, rather than the zippered office functionaries we pretend to be, is also the only way we can really come to understand, let alone affect, the larger institutional patterns we are trying to change.” – Warren Nilsson
Social change work is slow, and we’ve all heard stories of well-intentioned people burning out as they scramble to improve this big old world of ours. But what if this were different?
In the fall of 2013, the McGill Office of Sustainability (MOOS) was fortunate to work with Organization Unbound to re-imagine the way we think about and engage in social change. With the guidance of our two gentle and ever-curious facilitators, Jonathan Glencross and Lise Palmer, we were invited to focus on the people doing the work (in this case, us) through a six-month exploration of “expressive change”.
Expressive change is the idea that social transformation must go beyond what an organization does; it must also nourish the people of these same organizations, allowing them to experience what they seek to create in the world in an authentic and personal way. This is based on the observation that some of the most vibrant and socially transformative organizations are places “where there is a promising confusion about who is serving whom – schools where teachers learn and grow, food banks where staff and volunteers are nourished, hospitals where doctors are healed, social justice groups where activists are surprised to find their vision of a better world taking root in their own offices.”
With this in mind, we were asked a deceptively simple question: how do we become what we seek?
This question was particularly poignant for us, as a group of people literally working on a vision. Here’s the situation we had found ourselves in: over a period of two years, our office had been working on a project called Vision 2020. We asked thousands of members of the McGill community to imagine a sustainable McGill and, in doing so, crafted an aspirational vision and goals for sustainability for the university. From the outside looking in, Vision 2020 was a success story.1 However things were feeling just a little different from the inside – panic-inducing inboxes, packed calendars, knotted stomachs, fractured attention spans and lunches eaten mindlessly while hunching over laptops. Let’s be honest. This wasn’t exactly our Vision 2020. This type of work environment feels subpar even when you love and cherish your job and adore all of the people you work with.
The funny thing is that we’ve always known that having a positive office culture is important. We knew that we wanted to participate in an organization of patchwork, unruly human beings, where there is a promising confusion about who is serving whom. We knew that we wanted to be part of a rich fabric of human connections and creative thinking, of experimentation and colour. We knew that we wanted to laugh more. And yet, in the middle of a crazy-busy season we had begun to approach “team building” rather desperately, doing things like putting “fun” into our work plan and then realizing, deflated, that this was the only box we had failed again to check at the end of the month.
Staying healthy, nourishing connections with family and friends, and maintaining a sense of optimism and inspiration in our work, while deeply valued by each of us, had somehow been downgraded to optional when the going got a little tough. As we learned more about the significance of this misalignment and reflected honestly on how social change work was affecting the office itself, we decided to dive into exploring expressive change together.
The expressive change sessions offered us a chance to reflect on how our tendency to over-work and burn out in the name of “fostering a culture of sustainability at McGill” was literally standing in the way of us creating a thriving hub of positive change.
It was also an opportunity to look at our relationships with other people in the McGill community and consider ways we could infuse these valued connections with authenticity, generosity, and a little bit of playfulness. It was an invitation to creatively shift the patterns that were more transactional than transformational, and not just by putting them on the to-do list.
The term “expressive change” may sound like just a new kind of organizational jargon. But, speaking from experience, we really felt our office culture transform for the better as we took some surprisingly practical steps.
We began with a series of morning sessions where we worked through some self-guided program material and used that as a starting point for exploring, sharing, questioning, and reworking a lot of things together. It was the emergence of collective and personal commitments to do things like “ban lunch meetings”, “book more work parties to tackle the hard stuff together”, and “play gently with bureaucratic norms” (for more on this see our blog post The Simple, Feel-Good Things). It was the integration of personal check-ins to the beginning of meetings where we now genuinely ask each other how we’re doing, and the emergence of other, less formal pathways for sharing experience and insight from our personal lives. It was even something as basic as tweaking our semi-annual retreats to include a bit less “organizational development” and a bit more cooking together. What we’re discovering is that when we make space for authentic connection and signal to each other that this is deeply valued… it happens.
It’s still unfolding, but now we have a common vocabulary for talking about how we’re experiencing our work (and lives) as well as what we’re accomplishing. The new terminology is simultaneously a bit of an inside joke – we share high fives when we “inscape” or feel we’re in the “giving field” – and a reminder of a sincerely held intention. Looking back, we’re grateful for the opportunity to pause and explore the more personal aspects of the McGill Office of Sustainability’s mission together. There’s a deeper quality to our work now, and we recognize more openly that our own wellbeing needs to be regenerated and celebrated as we work towards these goals in the wider community.
We used to meet explicitly about expressive change, but now we don’t. The idea is that it gradually becomes a way of being rather than an additional work stream. With so many resources openly shared on the Organization Unbound site, you might want to come together as a group and give it a try yourselves. If you’re rushing, though, slow down. If you’re forcing it, relax. Let yourselves be a little patchwork, and a little unruly as well.
Homepage photo by M. Rehemtulla for QUOI Media Group
Above illustration by Todd Stewart of Breeree