and Meaning at Work
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
A healthy dosage of spirituality and meaning
at the workplace is good for business, because it improves morale
and productivity. This view is gaining currency among management
consultants, human resources professionals and mainstream business
The movement to bring spirit and soul to business
is no passing fad; it continues to grow and with no signs of abating.
Clearly, something significant and enduring is stirring the corporate
In the last ten years, conferences on spirituality
and business have mushroomed. For example, the Leadership,
Values and Spirituality Conference at the Harvard Business School
on April, 2003 challenged business leaders to lead with integrity,
reflect on their spiritual values and create a fulfilling workplace.
A search on Google and Amazon.com yields more
than 200 books on spirituality and business. Some books on soul
and spirit at work have been among the best sellers. Here are some
of the titles: Saving Corporate Soul,
Liberating the Corporate Soul, Spirit at Work, Jesus CEO, Working
from the Heart, and Leading with Soul.
Academe has also embraced the movement. Harvard
Business School is at the frontier of this development. The prestigious
American Academy of Management has recently formed a Special Interest
Group in Management,
Spirituality and Religion. An increasing number of journal articles
are devoted to this topic. The June 2003 issue of Organization has
a themed section on
Spirituality, Management and Organization. The
Institute for Spirituality and Organizational Leadership, led
by Dr. Andre L. Delbecq and Dr. James J. McGee, is influential in
the field. Dr.Delbecq has just published an article on "Spirituality
for Business Leadership: Reporting on a Pilot course for MBAs and
CEOs" in the June 2003 Issue of the Journal
of Management Inquiry.
Spirituality at work
vitality of this movement is evident in many fronts. The presence
of spirituality is felt in boardrooms as well as in office cubicles.
Many corporations allow employees to hold religious classes at work.
Spiritual study groups at noon are called "Higher power lunches".
Prayer groups have also sprung up. For example,
Boeing has Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer groups. It is not
uncommon for senior management and board members to seek moral and
spiritual guidance though prayers and consulting spiritual leaders.
Many companies are willing to invest money to sponsor seminars or
workshops on religious wisdoms, spiritual growth, yoga, meditation,
balanced life, creativity and authentic communication. Both management
and employees now feel more comfortable in expressing their personal
faith publicly and in integrating their faith with work.
In the past decade, consultancy and ministry
activities in this area have increased phenomenally. An increasing
number of management consultants claim to specialize in spiritual
transformation at both the individual and organizational levels.
The Dallas-based Marketplace
Ministries and similar organizations have placed hundreds of
chaplains at various companies and government offices to provide
personal spiritual counselling and perform religious services.
This new movement has raised more questions
than answers. What is the impetus to this movement? What is spirituality?
Will it transform corporate America? How does spirituality influence
the decision making process? How does it benefit community and humanity?
How do spirituality and profitability interact? What is the downside
of this newfound interest in spirituality? What kills spirituality
at the workplace? Space will not permit a thorough treatment of
these and other related questions. I will just briefly touch on
some of these questions.
Why the spiritual interest?
Many forces have contributed to the revival
of spirituality at the workplace. These include social and economical
changes and shifts in demographics of the workforce.
- Instability as a result from layoffs, downsizing,
merger, and globalization
- Increased stress in remaining workers, who
are required to do more for less
- Declining job satisfaction and increasing
incidents of depression and burnout
- Environmental pollutions and energy crisis
- Scandals of unethical corporate behavior
and the "Enron effect"
- Technology-driven information economy and
its dehumanizing effect
- Workplace violence, office rage and threats
- Unraveling of traditional institutions, such
as schools and the family
In these turbulent times, it is only natural
that workers turn to spirituality and religion for remedies, security
and inner peace.
Since many people have to work longer hours
and longer years just to survive financially, there is a greater
need for them to incorporate the spiritual aspects of their lives
into their work.
In order to cope with increasing feelings of
stress and alienation, both managers and employees alike are trying
to create meaning and purpose in the workplace. They are also searching
for a renewed sense of community.
The hunger for spirituality and meaning among
aging baby boomers may also contribute to this movement. Similarly,
the increasing number of women joining the workforce also creates
a demand for caring and nourishing at the workplace.
The holistic approach towards management suggests
that it is good for people to bring their whole persons to work,
their body, mind and spirit. This approach also emphasizes the need
of bridging analytical and artistic sides of workers to increase
There is the widespread belief that for companies
to survive into the 21st century in the face of economical downturn
and global competition, it would be helpful to seek inspiration
from Above and tap into employees' spiritual resources.
What is spirituality?
what is spirituality, given the many different perspectives on this
Spirituality overlaps with religion with respect
to belief in the mystical, transcendental reality, and affirmation
of meaning and purpose in the midst of suffering and death. But
spirituality does not need to be confined within the structure of
any organized religion or a particular set of religious beliefs.
In short, spirituality is more inclusive than any faith traditions.
Spirituality should not be used as a religious
garment or a marketing tool. It is concerned with substance rather
than image. More specifically, it has to do with how we define ourselves,
view the world, relate to others, and make ethical/moral decisions.
Here are some of the attributes of spirituality within the context
- Defining ourselves as having inherent values,
greater than our roles, titles and possessions
- Affirming meaning and purpose in spite of
absurdity and chaos
- Emphasizing authenticity, inner wisdom, creativity
- Recognizing the immaterial, transcendental,
sacred dimensions of reality
- Having a servant's attitude towards work
- Embodying spiritual values of integrity,
honesty, love, kindness and respect
- Emphasizing social responsibility toward
the community, society and environment
- Viewing God and spiritual principles as the
grounding for moral decisions
In the February 2003 issue of Christianity
Today, Jeff Sellers points out that "Most of the New Business
values fit well into Christ's kingdom: love; honor; service and
servant leadership; trust-based ("covenantal") relationships between
manager and employee, rather than fear-based ones dependent on corporate
hierarchy; community; environmental stewardship; creativity; cooperation;
qualitative company assets like a sense of achievement; competence;
ethical behavior; corporate higher purpose and responsibility; and
personal fulfillment and development" (p.39).
How to bring spirituality to the workplace?
has to tread carefully in this matter. Imposing spirituality and
religion on employees would be counterproductive. Most corporations
simply encourage religious expressions at the workplace, and make
some resources available to help meet employees' spiritual needs.
However, to be effective, spirituality needs
to be integrated into the corporate culture and reflected in organizational
policies and practices on a daily basis. This can be done only when
senior management and the governing board embrace it as part of
their vision. The full benefits of spirituality on morale and productivity
will not be realized without a sustained, large-scale cultural transformation
at all levels of the organization. When this happens, you will see
the following changes at the workplace:
- The organization will become purpose-driven
- Management with a mission will replace management
of efficiency and control.
- There will be a shift from fear-based culture
to love-based culture.
- Management practices and decisions will be
clearly consistent with spiritual values such as integrity, honesty,
love, hope, kindness, respect and nurturing.
- Spirituality is about bringing passion -
bringing your heart, soul and spirit - to what you do, because
from a spiritual perspective, work has a deeper meaning and serves
a higher purpose.
- Management learns to truly listen and builds
a safe place where employees can speak the truth without fear
- Management will break down the walls of hierarchy
to create a sense of community and inspire a sense of belonging
in the workers.
- There is a new willingness to reflect on
the meaning of life and moral implications in making important
- There is a shared attitude that products
and services need to be beneficial to community and humanity.
- Management will value employees based on
who they are, what they can become, rather than what they can
do for the company.
- Bosses will treat employees in a responsible,
respectful and caring way, because people are not instruments
to be used and exploited.
- Management will also resort to spiritual
ways of resolving conflict. Therefore, they will be reluctant
in issuing ultimatum and slow in the "firing trigger".
- There will be a move from command-and-control
leadership to horizontal servant leadership, which emphasizes
empowering, delegation and cooperation.
- There will be an improvement in morale, job
satisfaction, loyalty and productivity.
- Spiritual dimension will be fully integrated
with every aspect of work life, such as relationships, planning,
budgeting, negotiation, compensation, etc.
Such a company sounds like Utopia. It may not
exist even among religious organizations, which wear spirituality
on their sleeves, and requires all employees to endorse statements
of faith. A great deal of soul searching is needed to find out what
is preventing management from creating a truly spiritual work climate.
It turns out that business is more than just
business. We need to consider workers' need for meaning and spirituality
in order to unleash their full potential. It is refreshing that
more and more companies and corporations are embracing spiritual
The present spiritual movement is probably
the most significant trend in management since the human-potential
movement in the 50s. It appears to be a grassroots movement, as
more and more people entertain the notion that work can be meaningful
and fulfilling. In the wake of the Enron debacle, management is
also more willing to take spiritual and moral values seriously.
This trend will endure, simply because it speaks
to the deeper needs of the human heart, and provides a promising
remedy to declining job satisfaction. Even if research fails to
establish a direct link between spirituality and profitability,
an enlightened business attitude may still have the benefit of creating
a more compassionate, caring and ethical workplace. This alone would
be good news for people, who spend most of their adult lives at