Faith at Work: Managing the Spiritual Renaissance

When Canterbury University’s management department announced it would offer paper on spirituality in the workplace in 2002, it expected strong interest from commerce students. By early February it had nearly double the projected number of enrolments, including many from students of other disciplines and adult students returning to the university.
The course is the first of its kind offered at New Zealand university according to Dr Marjo Lips-Wiersma, lecturer in organisational behaviour at the department. She thinks the level of interest indicates the widespread search for meaning and purpose in work and life. “We want to create forum for discussion about major issues, such as ‘how does business serve spirituality’, and ‘under what conditions can organisations harness the hearts and souls of employees?’.”
Spirituality at work is one of those hard-to-pin-down topics because individuals have quite different views of what ‘spirituality’, ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ mean in both theory and practice. But even if the concepts are hard to define, the subject inevitably generates impassioned reactions.
At one end of the spectrum are individuals who regard spirituality as central tenet of life, and therefore see its expression in the workplace as entirely appropriate. Bringing employees and the wider community into the faith may also be an important goal of the business. An opposing view holds that spirituality and religion have absolutely no place in the workplace – any overtly religious expression is regarded as at best an inappropriate time-waster, and at worst harassment.
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum reside attitudes which see spirituality as akin to values and ethics, and thus an important component of organisational success. These views are usually expressed in secular way, with room for individuals within an organisation to align the values to their own particular philosophy or religious faith. This approach seems to suit both New Zealand’s largely secular society, and its increasingly diverse cultural and religious composition.
“People in political and business life in the United States routinely discuss their faith, but in New Zealand it is seen as an irrelevancy or something that shouldn’t be expressed in public,” says former Russell McVeigh law firm CEO Lois Dickinson, and now vice-chair of the international board of World Vision and chair of the board of trustees of World Vision in New Zealand.
Much of the prolific literature published on workplace spirituality during the 1990s (over 300 books and many more articles according to Lips-Wiersma) comes from the US. The amazon.com bookstore currently offers more than 200 titles on the subject. By contrast spirituality in New Zealand is generally seen as private matter and most Christian churches have largely ceased to engage with either the business community, or with the business lives of their congregations. The result has been reinforcement of the sacred/secular divide, although there is some evidence that this is changing little.
Peter Beck, an Anglican priest for 30 years, suggests “many business people want to talk about spirituality, but not necessarily religion”. During his tenure as vicar at Auckland’s St Matthew-in-the-City he worked with corporate organisations and individuals in the church’s inner-city parish. The relationship focused on identifying and assisting with the spiritual needs of business, as well as securing support for restoration of the historic building. Since leaving St Matthew he has worked with corporate training and coaching company, and now runs retreat and conference centre in Auckland.
“Every organisation has spirituality, whether it realises it or not,” says Beck. “Spirituality is often expressed in the broadest sense as organisational and personal aspirations and goals, values and ethics; and comments about how the organisation should treat people, the environment and the community.”
Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation thinks that “principled leadership creates faith in the leadership of the organisation amongst employees”. People don’t want religion just to be private view. “They want to see how it is applied to business,” he adds. The inter-faith Council of Christians and Jews, in which he is involved, provides forum for discussion about faith’s application in the business world.
It might not signify spirituality but there is increasing reference to “values” in business. Organisations are increasingly keen to demonstrate values through triple-bottom-line reporting, membership of environmental business networks, and corporate social responsibility programmes. All help market the organisation, its values and programmes to increasingly well-informed staff, customers and community.
The escalating debate about ethics in business, also seen as secular answer to values, particularly in what is called the post-Christian west is focused on decision-making within currently accepted models of economic systems and growth. However, public interest in issues such as globalisation, genetic engineering, environmental protection and work-life balance, are all examples of more fundamental questioning of those models.
Naomi Klein’s book No Logo outlined some of the impacts of globalisation both on developing and developed countries while the September 11 attack on the New York World Trade Centre graphically demonstrated the inter-connectedness of economic, cultural and religious issues.
Does this mean that business will move to address the fundamental issues central to the world’s great religions, such as social justice and poverty? Some say yes, others disagree arguing that the link between spirituality, business and the workplace is being interpreted quite differently.
Dr Ross McDonald, senior lecturer in the management and employment relations department at the University of Auckland, identifies two main factors as significant in the change. First there is the declining influence of traditional religions (particularly in the West), with their wealth of signs and symbols which provide constant reminder of agreed laws and ways of acting. But, in the words of at least one advertisement, ‘the old rules are gone’, and constant change is celebrated.
The second factor is public concern over issues such as modern competitive business practices and globalisation. The result is “a cheapening of deeper spiritual values, and their conversion into fleeting management tools or fads”, according to McDonald.
Instead of an outward or community focus, the movement is towards personal empowerment, and desire for “guilt-free” nurturing and indulging, trend which is often expressed in semi-spiritual terms. What better than to unwind after hectic corporate day immersed in bath scented with “Serenity” bath oil, while meditating and listening to CD of Indian spiritual music, and watching an aromatherapy candle (brand “Faith”) illuminate minimalist bathroom designed along feng-shui principles?
The result is cross-pollinisation of sacred and secular at the commercial level, and spiritual ‘pick-and-mix’. Instead of coherent system of belief, we look instead to range of management and lifestyle gurus for tools to download to fix our particular psychic itch.
In the same way that lifestyle products have picked up on terms formerly used in spiritual sense, the business world now harnesses words more often used for activities other than work, including spirituality. Words such as ‘passion’ and ‘mission’ assign meaning to work, to link individual activity and corporate purpose, and to provide rationale for the primacy of work in the 24/7 culture.
While these big picture issues are debated, how should employees and managers grapple with the day-to-day issues? One obvious, but sometimes overlooked, approach is for individuals and organisations to pay close attention to each other’s core values, especially when recruiting.
People development consultant

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