"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 4, 2013

Workplace Dissonance: The subliminal messages of mixed metaphors

Dissonance: a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements. (Oxford American College Dictionary)

In Reading Work, the authors have focused on the importance of “making meaning” of workplace environments through the examination (or perhaps awareness) of social and cultural practices. Indeed. Although I have not born the official role of workplace educator, I have nevertheless been tasked with the role of mediating between the needs of upper management and frontline staff in a variety of workplace situations within the nonprofit sector. Generally, due to the small size of the agencies I have worked with, training and educating staff falls to that mid-level person who is expected to divine upper management’s wishes (discourses) and translate those into staff ideals and actions.

In the chapter on the Urban Hotel, the first place I noticed where tension might develop between these two discourses was in the section “Managing Employee Identity” (p. 110). In this section Hunter describes the envisioned culture of the Urban Hotel – an attractive, congenial, competent servant whose pleasure was serving guests. On the surface, this seems a worthwhile vision for a hotel. The trick comes in the “empowerment” language and actual practice of empowerment to “serve the guests.”  In also comes in what it means to “serve” the guest in practice. There is a wide gulf between cleaning bathrooms, standing all day greeting guests (some of who may just be grumpy from a long day), and spending the bulk of your time conceiving of new ways to ensure “quality.” (Oops, my bias just surfaced.)

For me, the disconnect between social and cultural practice was articulated most amusingly in the 4th Standard of Excellence: We are a team! A group of eagles, who have joined to fly in formation. This statement sums up the distance between executive management and frontline staff. Eagles do not fly in formation. Geese fly in formation. (Eagles=executive icon; Geese=workers icon) The hilarity is that no one zeros in on the dissonance of this communication effort. 

 Contradictions. As Hunter moves through her analysis of the Urban Hotel this word surfaces frequently. In continues to be used in chapter six as the authors discuss implications for literacy practices within workplaces. I believe that what the authors of Reading Work are trying to do is essential to overcoming the dissonance found within most work environments, and that is most simply, for people to walk a bit in each others’ shoes.      


  1. Yes, Susan, I too was amused by the eagles in formation comment. I will go one step further and suggest that gees flying in formation is due to synergy (the right idea for mgmt) however the geese take turns leading because they get tired and take advantage of the air current of the leader. It did not sound like anyone in upper mgmt, leading was prepared to take a true look at anyone else's jobs - it was like they wanted to create Stepford Wives (another idea that kept popping into my head as I read this chapter). Thanks.

  2. Hi Susangale & Lisa: I finally caught up with the reading and wanted to jump into this conversation. I have a slightly different take on "eagles in formation," though I agree, it initially strikes me as an odd phrase. After doing homework from another class (ha ha), and attending the Dr Marquandt event on action learning, I think the eagle formation metaphor is actually a good description of an effective team. Eagles symbolize diversity, independent thinking, strength, etc. Imagine the possibilities when "eagles" come together to complete a task. It is diversity and individual strength, working together, that makes teamwork so much more powerful, creative, etc. than a collection of like-minded people. I know, this is pretty basic stuff. Forgive me for quoting, but I want to pull in some language from Daniel Levi (2011), "Group Dynamics for Teams"

    "Diversity in a group stems from differences in demographic, psychological, and organizational characteristics....in most cases diversity is a benefit once a team learns how to manage its diversity....a group with diverse members performs better on production, problem solving, and creativity tasks (218)."

    Also, a basic tenet of Dr. Marquandt's action-learning-for-problem-solving is to develop teams with as much diversity as possible. It is in different ways of seeing the world that complex problems are solved. Perhaps the "eagles in formation" metaphor is aiming at this concept? Thanks for listening! Susan Wa

    1. Everything you have said about the strength of teams through diversity is true. Perhaps I am being too literal, but eagles do not come together to work as a team. Geese do. As a matter of fact, the attributes of geese demonstrate how they share leadership and rotate off not only to conserve the energy of lead goose - but so that the formation (the team)does lose momentum. I think we can learn a lot from geese and what it takes to fly in tandem. Eagles, however, fly solo. Regardless of their strength - they are basically a solitary creature. Americans place them in such esteem because of this attribute - the old "I did it my way" so descriptive of our culture, and thus why one would think they signify diversity. (Every eagle does his own thing.)Don't get me wrong - I like eagles. I like to think of myself overcoming all obstacles and soaring above the fray. But I stand my ground - an eagle is a poor metaphor for teamwork. And the commonsense of front-line employees instinctively knows this. I believe looking at this closely can provide much insight into their resistance and why there is often so much disconnect between upper management and the lower echelons of the corporation. hmmm... looks like this could be an interesting class discussion. Thanks for your post! Differences of opinion are needed as we work to "make meaning" of literary practice.

    2. Funny story I need to share with you about bird metaphors - many years ago I received a pair of beautifully carved little ducks as a wedding present. In certain cultures, a pair of ducks symbolize unity, love, etc. whatever. I have always found the duck metaphor hilarious, and I giggle each time I look at those little ducks. I don't see ducks as a romantic symbol at all. In fact, ducks are downright sleazy (have you ever seen frisky ducks in the spring?). Perhaps that was the real gift - many years of laughing from a good friend. Anyway, this comment is off-topic, but I thought it would give you a chuckle, too. See you in class! Quack quack!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.