The Intangible Element of Being

By Guest Blogger, Dr. Lee Meadows 


Ever since the great employee free fall of the 1980’s in which terms like ‘downsizing’, ‘restructuring’, ‘right sizing’ and ‘reengineering’ became object descriptions for depersonalizing the impact of an ‘unexpected change in circumstance’, the resulting impact on the individual psyche and the social landscape have been at odds for well over 30 years. The greater need for organizational preservation has served as the practical justification for many of the decisions that were made in an earnest attempt to put profits over people, preserve the natural order and survive in the midst of rapid change. Historians, philosophers and nostalgically active baby boomers will debate the impact of that arrangement well into the 21st century. What remains for present day consideration is the inadvertent message that slithered its way into the mindset and, like a dormant virus, shaped itself like a birthmark that clings to the outer circle of established core values. Much has been said about the, abrupt, mass departures that left thousands contemplating what they had to leave behind without no one asking the question of the organization, “What are you letting get away?” In that regard, the answer is “More than you realized.”

When one considers the elements that make up who we are, formal knowledge, skills acquired, competencies developed, relationships established and individual experiences (elements like family, community, church etc, for the sake of what is being advanced here, are assumed to be part of the equation), then what starts to emerge is a unique set of collective experiences that, when taken as a whole, are the embodiment of an individual who is the sum total of many integrated parts that represent the ‘self’, but not all of its substance. When a formal departure occurs in most organizational settings, the departing self takes with them all of the formal, tangible elements that the instigator may view as no longer essential to the relationship. The skill set, the years served, the sacrifices made are seen as mere trappings in which the organization, rightly or wrongly, decides are no longer essential to the process needed for future survival. So, like most of the man-made experience, decisions are made on what we see and completely ignoring what we sense. There is no accounting for the imbalance scale that favors the tangible elements over the intangible elements, yet the exploding world of the ‘experienced’ contract employee would suggest that the instigator’s scope was far too narrow when making such broadly impactful decisions.

There is an argument for the intangible elements of the collective experience that, while not objectively considered, are inherently essential to organizational success. More than knowing where bodies are buried, the intangible elements take into account the informal ways in which things are connected and the formal methods that led to things being disconnected. With every departure, there is an external network that was, formally and organically, developed that allowed that individual to navigate the stormy waters or take short cuts through complex passages without the disruptions that come with formal structures. A phone call could do what a proposal could not, a cup of coffee can buy more than a purchasing agreement, a historically referenced comment can save more time than an upgraded app. Each path is different, every set of experiences is unique and the time between birth and death varies, yet the intangible elements of being suggest that each individual is the sum total of their organizational life that cannot be measured through a simple performance evaluation and should not be measured in the emotional moment of the departure. Maybe it’s the consistent smile you brought that is now being missed, maybe it’s the willingness to go the extra mile when others tire during the stretch, maybe it’s the email birthday greetings you sent to your colleagues just because it is their birthday. When the final tally is taken, it will become clear that the intangible elements of being should have been a more balanced consideration for long term organizational success. Nor should they be ignored when positioning oneself for the road ahead.