Blues Harmonica Parallels to a Harmonious Workplace

by | Jun 24, 2024 | Change Management, I-O Psychology, Management and Leadership, Organizational Development, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

How are a “tin sandwich” and an employer organization similar?

Some may recall that I play a little bit of harmonica as a hobby. As I actively pursued studying and improving my knowledge, skills, and abilities in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Organizational Development, Change Leadership, Strategic Human Resources Management (HRM), Talent Optimization, AND diatonic harmonica – especially for the past few years – I cannot help but see some connections between the “harp” and workplaces. Forbes contributor and ethics expert Bruce Weinstein also drew similar connotations between playing this tiny musical instrument and effective leadership in his article in Forbes, How the Coolest Instrument Will Enrich Your Leadership.

Bruce began writing for Harmonica Happenings in the past year or two, the quarterly newsletter for the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH). In the Spring 2024 edition, Bruce asked, “What is the one thing learning, playing, or teaching the harmonica has taught you?” Forty-one musicians responded, including me. While most provided at least a sentence or two, I answered with one word, “Persistence.” I think I took “one thing” a little too literally.

Harmonica Happenings, Spring 2024 Bruce Weinstein article

Upon reflecting on my answer, the blues harp has taught me much more than that, and I thought I would write a little bit on how I see I-O Psychology, OD, and Change Leadership intersect with the “tin sandwich.”

Harmonica and I-O Psychology

Industrial-Organizational Psychology, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), involves “the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace. The specialty focuses on deriving principles of individual, group, and organizational behavior and applying this knowledge to the solution of problems at work.” (APA, n.d.).

I had the opportunity to perform a little harmonica on the “SIOP’s Got Talent” stage at the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Convention in Chicago in April. Here’s a brief clip of the end of my performance.

Some ways I see the workplace and the harmonica akin to each other include: 

Improvisation

  • Blues Harmonica: Blues harmonica players often use improvisation to make music by adapting their note choices, rhythms, and musicality in the moment and unscripted to the music they experience.
  • Workplace: In a harmonious workplace, employees strive for flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, much like a harmonica player who adjusts their notes and rhythms to complement the music.

Listening and Collaboration

  • Blues Harmonica: Successful harmonica playing, especially in a band setting, necessitates attentive listening to one’s own playing and the music of others to make a cohesive and harmonious piece.
  • Workplace: Similarly, just as musicians listen to each other to create beautiful music, productive work in a workplace stems from active listening and collaboration among team members.

Motivation

  • Blues Harmonica: Amateurs and professionals, when making music with the harmonica, possess the motivation to achieve some goal of gaining competence and perhaps even mastery of the instrument to some level of proficiency.
  • Workplace: The “O” in I-O Psychology centers mainly on the motivations of individuals and work groups. Goal-setting theory states that with a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-constrained) goal that has meaning and purpose, workers have the motivation to pursue that goal and persevere through challenges.

Expression and Communication

  • Blues Harmonica: The harmonica is a highly expressive instrument, conveying a wide range of emotions through its notes, bends, warbles, and other player techniques.
  • Workplace: Clear, honest, and empathetic communication expressed with sound frameworks and techniques can help resolve conflicts and build stronger team relationships, contributing to a harmonious atmosphere.

Harmonica and Organizational Development

According to the OD Network, “Organization Development (OD) refers to the interdisciplinary field of scholars and practitioners who work collaboratively with organizations and communities to develop their system-wide capacity for effectiveness and vitality. It is grounded in the organization and social sciences.” (Smendzuik-O’Brien & Gilpin-Jackson, 2021). Here I present a few ways the harp and OD relate.

Continuous Improvement and Learning

  • Blues Harmonica: Mastering the blues harmonica requires continuous practice and learning, with players constantly seeking to improve their skills and techniques.
  • OD: Organizational development emphasizes continuous improvement and learning within the organization. Just as harmonica players strive to better their craft, organizations should foster a culture of ongoing development, encouraging employees to learn new skills and enhance their performance.

Team Cohesion and Culture

  • Blues Harmonica: In a blues band, each musician contributes to the overall sound and success of the performance in their unique way bringing their skills to the betterment of the group and the audience.
  • OD: In the context of OD, a cohesive culture where each team member understands their role and works towards common goals leads to better decision-making, improved quality, and a strong brand in the eyes of customers.

Innovation and Creativity

  • Blues Harmonica: The essence of blues music lies in its creativity and innovation, with musicians often experimenting with new sounds and styles.
  • OD: Similarly, OD focuses on fostering an innovative culture within the organization that produces value for stakeholders, including customers. Encouraging employees to think creatively and explore new ideas can improve processes, products, and services, driving the organization forward.

Diversity and Inclusion

  • Blues Harmonica: Harmonica players often possess multiple harmonicas in different keys (such as C, G, D, etc.) and specialty harmonicas (like low-tuned or minor-tuned). Each type and key brings a unique sound and capability to the music, allowing for a richer and more versatile performance and the ability to play in whatever key the band plays.
  • OD: In an organization, diversity refers to having employees from different backgrounds, cultures, genders, ages, abilities, and experiences. Each individual brings their unique perspectives, skills, and ideas, contributing to a richer and more innovative workplace. Just as different harmonicas enrich the musical possibilities, diverse employees enhance the organization’s ability to innovate and make better decisions (Conte & Landy, 2018).

Harmonica and Change Leadership

We can define organizational change management (OCM) as an, “enabling framework for managing the people side of change.” (Prosci, n.d.). However, Peter Drucker advocates more for change leadership over pure management when he famously stated, “One cannot manage change. One can only be ahead of it.” (Drucker, 1999). The following may illustrate how change leadership and harmonica performance have similarities.

Adaptability to Change

  • Blues Harmonica: Blues musicians often need to adapt quickly to changes in tempo, key, or style during a performance, requiring them to be versatile and responsive.
  • Change Leadership: Just as harmonica players must swiftly adjust their playing, employees and leaders must adapt quickly to new processes, technologies, and strategies to ensure smooth transitions and successful change implementation.

Engagement and Participation

  • Blues Harmonica: In a blues performance, harmonica players actively engage with the audience and other band members, making the music more lively and connected.
  • Change Leadership: Involving employees in the change process, seeking their input, and ensuring they understand the reasons for change can lead to higher acceptance and a smoother transition. As a harmonica player engages with the audience, change leaders must engage with their teams to foster a collaborative environment.

Overcoming Resistance

  • Blues Harmonica: Playing blues often involves expressing deep emotions and overcoming personal struggles through music, turning pain into something beautiful and powerful.
  • Change Leadership: Change leaders commonly encounter resistance as a challenge to organizational change. Effective change management involves addressing and overcoming resistance by understanding employee concerns, providing support, and communicating the benefits of change. Much like how blues musicians channel their struggles into their music, organizations can turn resistance into a driving force for successful change by addressing underlying issues and engaging employees positively.

Storytelling a Vision

  • Blues Harmonica: The harmonica’s expressiveness communicates emotions and stories without words, relying on the power of sound to convey messages.
  • Change Leadership: Change leaders must clearly communicate the vision, goals, and benefits of the change initiative to align everyone’s efforts and reduce uncertainty. Well-crafted messages, stories, and transparent communication can help guide employees through the change process.

Resilience and Perseverance

  • Blues Harmonica: Learning to play the blues harmonica requires persistence and resilience, especially when mastering complex techniques and improvisation.
  • Change Leadership: Organizational change often involves setbacks and challenges. Change leaders who build resilience within the organization and encourage perseverance among employees can help employees navigate these obstacles to goal achievement. Just as harmonica players persist through challenging pieces, organizations must persist through the challenges of change, maintaining focus on the end goals and supporting each other throughout the process.

Celebration of Successes

  • Blues Harmonica: Blues performances often end on a high note, celebrating the music and the connection with the audience.
  • Change Leadership: Effective change leaders celebrate milestones and successes during the change process to maintain momentum and morale. Recognizing and rewarding achievements, both big and small, helps to reinforce the positive aspects of change and encourages continued effort and engagement from employees. Just as a harmonica player celebrates the joy of music, organizations should celebrate the achievements of their change initiatives to foster a positive and supportive environment.

I hope you have found a little joy and some insight into how this pocket-sized instrument illustrates the achievable ideal of organizational development and that you might be inspired to create more harmonious workplaces.

My Personal Harmonica Journey

While I have only started playing regularly in the last decade or so, I’m not new to playing the harmonica. I received my first Hohner Blues Harp from my Uncle Rich and Aunt Pat while in high school in the 1990s. However, I really didn’t learn how to play the blues until a friend of mine, Chris, lent me a VHS about five years later from best-selling harmonica instruction author and educator Jon Gindick, whose “Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless” delighted harmonica enthusiasts worldwide selling as many as 2 million copies through bookstores and retail outlets. With YouTube and social channels in the last 10 years, I began furthering my skill building by connecting with the online harmonica community, including Jon, Adam Gussow, Ronnie Shellist, Joe Filisko, Will Wilde, Jason Ricci, and the members of several Facebook Groups. Furthermore, a local Chicago Harmonica Meetup occurs at Johnny’s Blitz, a bar in Westmont, IL, a suburb of Chicago. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help Jon Gindick rework his website in 2023 to reflect his growing library of harmonica instruction resources, which beginners and experienced players can find at www.gindick.com.

Gain Clarity with the Harmonious Workplaces Podcast

Tune in to The Harmonious Workplaces Podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Brought to you by Industrial-Organizational Psychology (I-O) practitioners, Change Management and Organizational Development (OD) Consultants, Human Resources Professionals, and Management Consultants, Harmonious Workplaces seeks to help organizations compose safe, inclusive, and productive organizations. Join Rich Cruz, Sharyl Volpe, Ben Kleinman, and other I-Os, HRMs, ODs, and more for discussions on topics that shape the way we work together.

Follow us on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@HarmoniousWorkplaces 

Listen now:

References

American Psychological Society (APA). (n.d.). Industrial-Oragnizational Psychology. https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/industrial 

Conte J. M., & Landy F. J. (2018). Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology. [MBS Direct]. Retrieved from https://mbsdirect.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781119493440/

Drucker, P. (1999). Management Challenges for the 21st Century. Harper Collins.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705 

Prosci. (n.d.). Change Management. https://www.prosci.com/change-management 

Smendzuik-O’Brien, J., & Gilpin-Jackson, Y. (2021). What is the definition of OD? Report on the definition of Organization Development (OD) circle of work. Organization Development Review, 53(1), 12-20.

Weinstein, B. (2022). How The Coolest Musical Instrument Will Enrich Your Leadership. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bruceweinstein/2021/10/02/how-the-coolest-musical-instrument-will-enrich-your-leadership/ 

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