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The Heart at Work® program; a collective quest
for more pleasure and effectiveness in the workplace.

Mandy Beekman

It is quite a task for a company to offer its staff a healthy, inspiring working environment and at the same time keep up with competition and the rapid changes of our times. Successful change in the way we work, asks for a key insight: that everyone, at all levels, shares the same desire; namely a working environment where values such as respect, openness and teamwork are truly put into practice and are not just empty words.

The Heart at Work® program, in essence, is a quest. And this quest creates a shared experience, in which everyone’s voice is heard. The realization that staff, management and directors together can reshape the collective heart of the organization, results in a palpable change in behavior. “When you talk to employees it becomes apparent that the need for connection is strong on all levels” says organization coach, Jeroen Drontmann. ”Our society has become very individualized. The need for an identity of one’s own is profound; ‘every man for himself’. However, simultaneously, you notice a growing need for warmth, attention and respect. The need to feel at home and at ease is increasing. People long for a place where they experience togetherness and involvement.”

Connecting head and heart

Over the past decade many organizations have done their utmost to captivated and retain their staff. The prevailing thought was: investment in the development of your people will pay off in loyalty, hard work, creativity and eventually in company performance increases. The more you invest the higher the return: thus management leadership trainings, personal development plans for staff and coaches appearing and disappearing became commonplace. Yet 75% of all change initiatives fail and it remains difficult, in these fast times of increasing competition, to be a flexible and motivated organization.

According to Drontmann it is overlooked that people are fed up with being pumped full with knowledge and skills and still hearing over and over again that things must to be done differently. “There is a limit to how much you can control and direct the behavior of people. Real change can only be achieved by making the collective heart of the organization visible and to have everyone feel it beating. That heart is made up of people’s real priorities, important things that make blood charge through their veins; values such as respect, passion, trust, teamwork, openness and humor. We may differ in behaviour, but we share our deepest value. You cannot change a culture if you only appeal to their ‘heads’. A good balance between head (reason) and heart (emotion) is essential. We draw out the potential in people by making that which is really important to them visible. This mobilizes a powerful force that will enable behavior to change. Not because it is an obligation, but because people themselves sincerely wish to do so.

Gaining insight through experience

The Heart at Work® program brings several disciplines together. “Music, theatre and film in combination with change management and communications have a lot to offer,” says Drontmann. The program begins with staff members going to the theatre together. They watch a musical theatre performance about themselves. The show has been written specially for them, reflecting what is in everyone’s minds but is never expressed.

“The Heart at Work® program starts by holding up this mirror. Uncensored and without beating around the bush”, says Jeroen Drontmann. The musical theater company Plezant produces a tailor-made stage production, based on interviews made within the organization. Plezant’s Walter Supèr: “The power of musical theatre to activate change is enormous. If the mirroring is clear enough, the combination of theatre and music will definitely open people up. That is a wonderful experience. Jeroen, second to none, knows how to anchor this experience within the organization.”

Identifying values

Right after the performance, which lasts an hour on average, Drontmann, on stage, asks the audience to answer a number of questions in silence. Questions related to what people recognized in the performance. The silence is necessary to allow the experience to sink in and to create the space for reflection. “It is extraordinary to experience what the performance has generated. Amazement, relief, confusion. People inwardly arrange in words what they’ve known all along and what they’ve now seen confirmed on stage. Now, finally, it can be said,” according to Drontmann.

The next step is a collective dialogue. Groups of eight discuss three main questions: what was recognizable, what do they dislike about the present situation and which values would they like to have increased. Eventually, this result in identifying three values that the group would like to see more of in their daily work environment. Central to this first phase of the program is stimulating an awareness of the present situation and formulating a collective aspiration.

The theatre performance is an important first step, but only the beginning. From now on the staff is swept up into an experience that is unavoidable. The next step is to promote the chosen values, by subsequently emphasizing each during three consecutive periods of one month each. First, each value is put into the spotlight in every possible way. Actors may appear, playing short scenes in the corridors of the office building; there are group sessions to discuss the value; poster boards to display statements from these dialogue sessions and all sorts of other unexpected happenings, bringing the value to life. It is a fascinating, valuable and fun process.

Joint quest

After that every staff member is asked to nominate a colleague, who already ‘embodies’ that particular value. The underlying idea is that what we want to see more of already exists, but we fail to notice it. This is a very important step. Drontmann: “We are used to focusing on problems and on what needs to change. This program is based on the notion that change takes shape much more readily when we focus on the successes of the present situation. This does not mean that we ignore or deny the problems, but we look at them from a different angle. I believe that people cannot create what they can’t visualise. Seeking out positive examples gives energy, brings up new ideas, and transforms feelings of stress and frustration into hope and inspiration. We invite people to look around and to become aware of what they appreciate in certain colleagues.”

After the three periods have come to an end and a number of staff members have been nominated, documentary filmmaker Maarten Nederhorst appears on the scene. He gathers stories about the nominees. “Not so much by portraying these people themselves, but by talking to their colleagues” according to Drontmann. “These stories bring the values to life by adding ‘images and sound’. With this documentary a valuable document is created that records history as well as future.”

Nederhorst: “I stand firmly behind this program and share Jeroen’s ideal to restore the balance between heart and mind in organizations. I admire his enthusiasm and the way he remains true to his passion. He creates a process of awakening, a collective experience and thus puts people back in touch with their inner selves and each other.”

The documentary is premiered at a festive meeting and the nominees, making up the collective heart of the organization, are put into the spotlight. They are rewarded with a budget to finance an initiative that will make the collective heart beat even stronger.

Janine Dechesne, founder of the event and communication company Dechesne & Boertje, is the third partner in Heart at Work®. Her company organizes corporate events aimed at strengthening an organization’s ties with its relations and/or staff. Dechesne & Boertje are responsible for organizing all program events and the premier celebration.

Dechesne is convinced that this program can bring about a sustainable change. “Walter Supèr and Tom Meulman from Plezant bring people from the superficial layer to a vital, deeper level within one hour. Then Jeroen is able to translate this depth into tangible changes in behavior and measurable results. The beauty of this program, as I see it, is that people work together to come up with their own solutions. The program fits well with our own work. We set people into motion while simultaneously looking at the commercial goals of the company. As an events company we are always on the look out for more depth. With Heart at Work® we take that step.”

Putting it into practice

To complete the program staff may choose to partake in various workshops. The three workshops relate to the selected values. The main question is how to put the core value into practice. Drontmann: “The basic assumption is that the value already lives innately within, the challenge is to bring it out.”

Making results visible

To make the achieved progress visible, a measuring tool is used to map the perception of the employees. “How does a staff member perceive the team work, contact with clients, appreciation of his or her own contribution and the organization as a whole?” This is measured before and after the program. Drontmann: “we prefer to use tools the organization already has when measuring organizational performance and employee satisfaction.”

A unique program

“The Heart at Work® program is unique. For the first time many disciplines come together. We cannot direct or plan behavioral change; fortunately, people choose their own behaviors. But we can increase the probability that people will make a collective change, by mutually identifying the most desired behavior of the majority. That is the aim of this program.”

Drontmann compares the visible behavior of people with the tips of icebergs which stand above sea level. They all look different and appear to be floating separately. But under the sea surface, hidden from sight, it turns out that many of these icebergs are connected. “Much the same as how shared intentions and values lie beneath different outward behaviors. These values are our common roots. The Heart at Work® program returns the water to a clear state so that everyone can see that all the seemingly disconnected iceberg tips form a solid base under water. The connection, that existed all along, is seen and felt once again.”

Article: Communicasa

'Organisational change: theatre, music and dialogue'.
Jeroen M. Drontmann

This article focuses on the following questions: How can theatre and music be used to collectively hold a mirror up to an organisation and how can theatre and music effectively become an integral part of the processes of change so that perceptions become manifest and joint dialogue can be initiated?

While pondering on a suitable name for the type of contribution that organisations need so badly, I drove past a house called Communicasa. Communicasa; a house where as many people as possible gather to communicate (derived from the Latin word 'communis', literally 'collective, jointly'). There is a need for this, a need for a place where we can meet to enter into talks. Talks where human beings 'as a whole' express their feelings: the rational ('I feel that.....') as well as the passionate ('What I really want to do here is....') side of man. People talk to each other but also to themselves. After all, the better your relationship with yourself the better you will be able to give shape to your relationships with others.

In addition to the quality of direction that people experience, the quality of the relationships that they have with each other and with themselves is the major factor for success within organisations. The remarkable thing about this is that, in practice, we actually devote so little explicit attention to this aspect. We focus more on the results than on the quality of the relationships from which these results emerge. There is an urgent need to shift the focus. The signals of the 'new age' (the quantity, complexity and pace of work are increasing rapidly) demonstrate to every organisation that the only way to address the challenges that we are faced with is by releasing the maximum creative potential of people. The secret of this seems to be to focus more closely on the quality of the mutual relationships.

But how can this be effected without losing track of the results and involving everybody, preferably all at the same time? Because, if, over a period of two months, we all go on retreat in groups of ten, everybody will experience things differently while we are addressing a common theme. It would, in fact, be best if everybody could join in because having an optimum work relationship is equally important to the secretary and the manager alike.

An alternative approach was developed on the basis of two worlds; namely consultancy and musical theatre. And not before time. Every organisation is busy implementing change and the quality of the communication involved is usually deplorable. If we want to address the challenges successfully we will need to enter into talks, as collectively, 'deeply' and rapidly as possible!

In the meantime in the theatre

'The curtain goes up and on stage we see a lot of people running about in all directions. Each of them carrying a mobile phone. Everybody in the theatre recognises from own experience this situation of total insanity. The hectic background music that is being played is working towards a climax. Suddenly it is quiet. One of the actors steps forward and says: 'I should have been at work, just like you, but something crazy happened to me this morning. I was shaving and I suddenly saw a different face in the mirror. 'It' started to talk (in the meantime another actor has entered the stage and acts the 'other'). 'It' said, 'I want to have a word with you now, I've waited long enough. You've pushed me away for too long, you've not listened to me for too long. Do you realise that if I'm not doing well we'll both not do well?!'. The other actor turned out to be the main character's 'feelings' or 'passion'. They enter into a conversation. There are several scenes with the manager (who has completely left her feelings 'at home') and at home with the character's partner ('do something about it, speak up when something is bothering you!'). The scenes are interspersed with touching music (...'It's ridiculous, I see you every day, but I still can't say that I know you. If you'd only decide to actually understand me. And if you'd only let me feel that you're receptive to my ideas. Then I'm convinced that together we could achieve much more. I treat you just like you treat me. I'm just like you'...).

The performance is about the role that you usually play at work every day. About the inner voice that many people do not dare to express. About the glamour and rituals at work, that usually do not make us feel comfortable. About the tension between work and personal life.

Theatre and music do not give answers but act as mirrors

In the theatre hall 200 employees of a division of a large company are seated. For years, management has attempted to make the quality of communication discussable and to improve it. Every year the employee satisfaction survey showed that 'people' felt that 'people' did not handle each other properly. Action plans were put on paper, but this did not help. Just like any other process of change it involves managing the perceptions of the target group. The biggest challenge is how to bring them into the open so that they can be discussed!

Training sessions were organised. During these sessions a much-heard sound was: 'Can you explain this to my manager/staff, he/they just don't understand it'! Training sessions during which teachers explained the importance of asking each other questions, looking at each other, first listening to the other before proceeding. But this also failed to work, it seemed as if the participants had heard it all before and 'already knew it'. In short, these sessions required the participants to use considerable 'head' energy but very little 'heart' energy. The main focus was on 'understanding it'. Those who did understand went home, but still did not put things into practice. Why not? Because people did not feel it as such, because it did not fit in with how they perceived reality! And also because 'they' did not change. Now, the idea was to:

  • offer an experience to the entire group at once;
  • do something different;
  • have a pleasant evening out with each other;
  • mix 'business' with 'pleasure';
  • do this via the 'heart' to the 'head';
  • not suggest that there is only one solution.

The theatre performance only described what the writers had 'read from' the employees during the orientational round of talks. The performance did not 'prescribe' but described. And it was such a probing description that an exchange of ideas about 'do you recognise this?'; 'have you also experienced that?' became inevitable.


  • How is the exchange of thoughts given shape?
  • What is the dialogue about?
  • What is the connection between the dialogue and change in culture?

The musical theatre performance is followed by discussions. Discussions that from now on will be called dialogue. What is dialogue? There is no unequivocal definition of the word. Examples of dialogue can be found in those cultures where respect for individuals was of paramount importance. The roots of the word can be found in the Greek language: dia (= 'through') and logos (= 'meaning'). When you have 'entered into dialogue', you seek to understand the meaning given to something by someone else. There is a great difference between this and the other word that we tend to use as a synonym for talks; i.e. the word discussion. Unlike a discussion, dialogue involves 'seeing' things as a whole, transcending the various personal opinions, while a discussion involves breaking up the problem/discussion point into small components ('what do you think and what do I think?'). In a dialogue you mainly see the connections between the different opinions. A discussion mainly aims at making differences visible. A dialogue involves exploring and discovering matters, and being inquisitive. A discussion mainly means convincing, selling, and talking.

It is of the utmost importance that your perception remains 'clear' and that you choose independently to act. Otherwise, you will either do nothing or do the wrong things. A dialogue helps in this respect. Immediately after the performance the above 'group of 200' entered into dialogue. Plenary questions were asked, on the basis of which small groups exchanged views in the theatre hall.

The following are examples of questions about which people exchanged thoughts:

  • What did you consider the essence of the performance?
  • What scene, song or metaphor appealed to you most and why?
  • How far away are you from what you consider as ideal behaviour in your contacts with colleagues or clients (if '10' = ideal, at what level on the scale are you now?)
  • What is the most important skill that you should have in order to be able to live up to the behaviour that corresponds to '10' every day?

The actual dialogue commences when people are back in their workplace, supervised by specially trained (internal) ambassadors. These are offered a brief training course in 'directing dialogue' and they convene dialogue sessions with existing teams. The purpose of these sessions is to 'transform' the musical theatre experience into the normal team practice, 'to learn from and to teach others' and to transform the experience gained into personal and team learning points for everyday contacts.

What has actually happened? What is the sense of talking? Shouldn't we just make action plans? Things do not happen automatically, do they? The fascinating thing is that everything does happen automatically if collectivity gets involved. If the sense of awareness of a large group of people is heightened, reality suddenly does become different, as if it happened automatically! Leaders can serve as catalysts and 'carriers of the flame'. They cannot change a collective reality on their own. The culture within the organisation is no more than the people who are employed there.


The topics of the talks that took place at our Communicasa over the past period include: ' How can we accelerate our merging process?' 'How can we optimise the communication and co-operation between people?' 'How can we further reduce the staff turnover?' 'How can we reduce absence through sickness?' 'How can we further develop our team?' 'What do we understand as integrity and what does the new behavioural code mean to me?'

If our mutual relationships were to be characterised by respect, confidence, openness, warmth, affection, not only would we perform better but the company that we work for would also operate better. We would like to give the best we can. And that is exactly what is needed to survive as an organisation in this day and age. We all feel a need to be connected to something that is bigger than our isolated selves. An organisation may be this connection - if only we can be ourselves. The only thing that we, as an organisation, need to do is to give people the opportunity of expressing themselves and, subsequently, to be confident that structure and order will emerge. The power and control that were prevalent within parts of the organisations should be replaced by companionship and affection. The collective enjoyment of music and theatre performances in which we recognise our current situation and, subsequently, entering into dialogue on the topics raised seems a sensible option.

My wish is that organisations become a Communicasa, a place where people meet and feel unified, each from within their own unicity.

In every office
You hear the threads
Of love and joy and fear and guilt,
The cries for celebration and reassurance,
And somehow you know that connecting those threads
Is what you are supposed to do
And business takes care of itself
(James Autrey: Threads; in: The Art of Caring leadership, 1991)

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