ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2002


Issue Highlight — Restoration
Peter Block's musing about a home restoration project serves as an excellent metaphor for issues in the cellar of our mind: “In our larger communities, we treat the inner city as a cellar that we do not want to enter....To enter this world, we would have the conversations that we have been avoiding.”

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
Making Change Stick
AQP “Quest for Quality” Chapter Keeps on Going and Going and …
Denta +: A Case Study in Exceptional Customer Experience Your Employees Know More Than You–So Listen!
Contact Center Employee Satisfaction and the Bottom Line
Funky Business and Taming Talent
Upcoming AQP Courses at a Glance...
What’s Up?

Peter Block Column


Return to NFC Index


Despite the need to make a living and transform the nature of institutions and communities, I have been preoccupied lately with fixing up a house. I spent one whole morning last week deciding whether a bench or a coffee table should go in front of the living room couch. I have looked at enough wooden furniture that I can now tell within one-half inch the height, width, and length of a table without the use of a tape measure, although I keep one with me at all times to make those fine distinctions.

Not that all the work is simply redecoration—the major project has been the restoration of a basement. My goal is to make it usable after a long period of high-humidity neglect. The basement had been relegated to storage and access to a maze of chaotic and jumbled utilities. This basement runs under the whole house and has a full, 10-foot ceiling, which is somewhat unusual. The big question was whether to reinstate the drop ceiling installed 50 years ago, or to patch and repair the old ceiling, keeping the utilities exposed.

The ceiling question, though, is one of technology. There are bigger issues than that—this is a basement we are talking about. This is the room in the house that rests underground. It holds hundreds of square feet of papers, old toys, skis, and outgrown shoes, which might become useful again some day. This is the room that houses memories and therefore dreams of what we might someday have the time to pursue. There is one space cluttered with old paint, jars of metal things, and chicken-wire fence—not a friendly place.

The basement also holds moisture. There is groundwater that drips into one spot and has for years. And this water finds its way into our space despite the strength and size of our foundation. The basement holds its own seasons, indifferent to what we have in mind for it. The basement is one room in the house that we go down into not by choice, but by necessity. It holds our past, our fears, all that we do not want to deal with just now. So what does it mean to “fix up” a basement and what is its attraction?

Going Down

Gaston Bachelard wrote a book in 1958 entitled The Poetics of Space. He explores the relationship between physical space and our imagination, our inner world. He contrasts the basement with the attic. “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear. In the attic it is a pleasure to see the bare rafters of the strong framework. Here we participate in the carpenter’s solid geometry. As for the cellar…it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.” Bachelard quotes Carl Jung who talks of the cellar with a different image: “‘…a man who, hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar, hurries to the attic and, finding no burglars there, decides, consequently, that the noise was pure imagination. In reality, this prudent man did not dare venture into the cellar.’”

Bachelard continues, “…Instead of facing the cellar (the unconscious), Jung’s ‘prudent man’ seeks alibis for his courage in the attic. In the attic rats and mice can make considerable noise. But let the master of the house arrive unexpectedly and they return to the silence of their holes. The creatures moving about in the cellar are slower, less scampering, more mysterious.” In the cellar, darkness prevails both day and night, and even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the dark walls. He says that even though we try to light our basements with electricity, the “unconscious can not be civilized. It takes a candle when it goes to the cellar.”

So here I am, spending two months compulsively restoring a basement, often thinking I am wasting my time when there is so much “real” work to do. It is not like I don’t have a job. At last count I had 442 e-mails that I have refused to delete. I have columns to write, people to call back, projects that demand more than I give them, and decisions to be made. I have made commitments to people, and they depend on me to meet those commitments. My work is meaningful, engaging, rewarding, and fast paced—sometimes.

But that ceiling and the cellar have captured all my attention. It has become a restoration project. Perhaps my current best chance to do something restorative, something that restores balance and perspective that can only come from time in the cellar. And perhaps at this moment, I have chosen to engage in restoration in a realm that I control.

The Possibility of Restoration

We live in a culture that only wants to visit the attic. Nationally we are filled with the righteousness of a war. There is only marginal discussion of what resides in our own basement, of what responsibility we might bear for having brought this suffering upon ourselves. We ask God to bless America, as if all other humans do not deserve God’s blessing.

As institutions, we decry Enron, setting aside the fact that what they did has been going on for years in most large organizations, albeit in a more ethical form. We have been squeezing benefits and pensions as a matter of course, and come to accept that the fate of human beings in our organizations is tangential to the economic and marketplace success of the enterprise. Every time a publicly held company fires people, the market celebrates.

In our larger communities, we treat the inner city as a cellar that we do not want to enter. There are grand exceptions, but in many cities we build in the suburbs, educate in private schools, and view the underclass as if they are pretty much on their own. In some places, the edge cities consciously compete with the downtown for convention business, as if they can win if the urban center loses.

In the smaller circle of our own workplace, we are consumers of optimism. We keep seeking upbeat leaders who can leave us glowing. We love visions for our organizations and communities. We think we can restore ourselves and create workplaces of our desires by staying focused on the attic and the floors above ground. We hold the hope that all we need is a little renovation, some remodeling, and that more fundamental restoration, even reconstruction, will not be required.

The Shadow Is Not Despair

What gets confused is the distinction between exploring the unconscious, shadow side of our workplaces/lives and cynicism, complaining, and hopelessness. We think that if we face our unexamined organizational selves, our own contribution to what disturbs us, that it will deepen our despair. The opposite might be true. Our despair, our cynicism or loss of idealism, may be caused by our very unwillingness to enter the shadows. The shadows in the basement are not despair; they are depth. To enter this world, we would have the conversations that we have been avoiding. We would publicly own and acknowledge our limitations long before we are forced to. If we are unwilling to go into the basement except in the light of day or out of necessity, then all of our experience above ground is colored by that. Noises, such as dissent, angry employees and citizens, and far-off cultures, frighten us. What we do not understand becomes an enemy. Mystery becomes a problem to be solved, rather than a source of wonder and imagination.

The Cellar Knows

Genuine restoration, our capacity to restore ourselves in the midst of difficulty, happens when we become friends with the night, or enter the cellar. Restoration would mean we would deepen our resolve to create organizations that care for people as well as performance and create communities that use the gifts of all its members. We might also become a nation that we can be proud enough of that we do not have to promote and advertise our pride, and can be generous and inclusive with our blessings.

One final comment on my basement. I finally decided to restore the original ceiling and expose the vents, wires, and pipes that keep the upper floors functioning. The floors and walls have become brighter and more habitable, but the ceiling remains as a reminder of all that the basement represents. There is one small room filled with old paint, jars of dust and metal, and that chicken wire, which I have not dealt with. I keep meaning to go in there, but I do have e-mails to answer.

Peter Block is author of the best-selling books, The Empowered Manager, Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, and The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion. Block can be reached at .

March 2002 News for a Change Homepage

  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News