Oh, how we all yearn for a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. But at a time when religion is fast losing relevance, where do we turn to for fulfilment of our purpose/calling? Where is our hunger for membership/community satisfied? The concept of workplace spirituality which first started out in the 1920s was supposed to give freedom to employees to exercise their faiths and spiritual beliefs.
The concept of ‘spiritual leadership’ has since then found its way into the secular world and has been in focus of research and management publications (such as Ethics in Organizations). In today’s post-christian Europe, church attendance is rapidly dropping, meanwhile, a newer generation with no affinity for institutionalized religion is entering the market. The conversation has shifted from organized religion to spirituality, sense-making, purpose-finding and introspective matters such as personal ‘calling’. This shift is evident in employer branding and the new work discourse. Corporations are no doubt in it for economic and perhaps social profits, but it would not be a terrible idea if they stand up to fill the voids that leave the spiritual and religious needs of their employees and communities unmet.
In the olden days, it was a common practice for Christian monks in Germany to establish businesses and other profit-making ventures off their skills and abilities. This practice was based on the Christian faith i.e., Diaconia (Evangelical) or Caritas (Catholic) and led to some of the world’s most famous beer brands (e.g. Franziskaner beer) and a wide range of eco products which are known worldwide today. Traces of this tradition are still found in modern day Bavaria.
Should secular establishments therefore follow the examples laid down by faith-based organizations? If it yields profits in terms of employee engagement, trust in organizations, brand recognition, partner and customer relationships, how do secular corporations take advantage of this and manage to escape constituting shoddy appropriation?
It is obvious that scientific evidence is still lacking in this field, but research clearly states that purpose-oriented entrepreneurs and organizations do better than competitors without a clear purpose, mission and vision. Moreover, from a secondary perspective, taking a quick look at publications and some established initiatives, we can see a strong movement rising toward spirituality in the workplace. Choosing a brand can be likened to a religious choice, and founders are becoming ‘demigods’ — their influence and legacy are becoming somewhat cult-like in nature.
Google’s initiative, the “Search Inside Yourself” program, carried out by an independent leadership institute based on Chade-Meng Tan’s book (“the best search engine lies in our souls”) was eventually becoming well known. Meng’s book, among other things, was exploring the topic of world peace which is clearly reflected in the subtitle. As a result, the program was licensed to larger organizations such as SAP. Their focus was on (a.) mindfulness to build, (b.) resilience by fostering and (c.) emotional intelligence („knowing one‘s internalized preferences, resources and intuitions“). Daniel Goleman, an expert on Emotional Intelligence, considers emotional intelligence a skill that can be taught and acquired so as a consequence, it could be applied into a collective via mindfulness practices such as “Search Inside Yourself”.
Does it get more religious than this? Or shall we say, “does it get more spiritual than this?” The practice of mindfulness unarguably contains elements of spirituality — elements such as meditation in which you a.) listen to yourself, b.) become aware of the moment and c.) rid yourself of distracting thoughts. These are no doubt spiritual practices but what values do these practices present to humanity?
This is 2019 when job titles such as „Chief Mindfulness Officers” are being created at large companies like SAP, when startups are hiring Zen Priests and HR departments are calculating ROI based on mindfulness practices in the company. In his survey, Peter Bostelmann, director of the Global Mindfulness Practice at SAP concludes that there are bountiful rewards in teaching employees mindfulness.
He puts the return on investment at 200 percent, measurable not only through participant feedback (see image), but also through an increase in the Employee Engagement Index and the reduction in staff sick leave.
Some mindful practices are simply in the pursuit of happiness but on a larger scale of things, mindfulness is closely associated with being in a state of peace, joy and calm. Quite a positive and hopeful orientation, but what answers does it propose to brokenness, fragility and the imperfections that most of us experience and bring to the workplace every day?
Many corporations have initiated programs that deal with the issues of integration, inclusion as well as long absences from work that may be caused by mental or physical illness. Unfortunately, the numbers are exponentially rising on an annual basis, especially for mental illnesses and lack of actual inclusion. People at work are ingesting much more information, are experiencing more organisational changes and are therefore facing more personal challenges than they were forty years ago (dealing with a VUCA world). This downward inclination may cause people to experience a more intense degree of fear and disorientation. Medical psychology seems to be failing woefully in an area where spirituality may hold all the answers.
The Chritian faith, as well as many other religions, does of course offer another approach to work ethics. One thing that cannot be ignored is the dilemma the idea of ‘growth’ creates and how it pushes organisations and their employees to the edge. Religion on the contrary promises a ‘good life’ that is not defined by economics alone. Religion accommodates failures, offers hope to said failures and presents an alternative perspective beyond materialism (and dataism today). The sculpting of another narrative that compensates for human error and fallibility, religion can take the position of a humanist-cum-ethical approach in matters that transcend humanity where philosophical ethics falter. However, the bone of contention is, can organisations be the chariot for religion?
There is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in
If religion is simply about transcendence, then organizations cannot be the subject or object in a religious universe. An organization’s ultimate purpose is commercial and material, it can therefore not reach a transcendent dimension, and more importantly, it could pose very serious dangers. Imagine a fragile work relationship that can cost an organisation everything. Religion says, “come in your weakness” but it is not certain that for-profit organisations take the same position on weakness and frailty. Religion says, “blessed are the weak” but an organization that is in for the commercial gains will not certainly keep rewarding an attitude of weakness. From a system-theoretical perspective, no one can be the originator of brokenness and at the same time, the subject for healing, hope and transformation.
It would create a dystopian world. A world where all narratives for a ‘good life’, perspectives about life and death, a hope that transcends our earthly and broken reality are answered by for-profit corporations.
All this is relevant today because we are experiencing a third wave of secularism in society. Institutionalised religion is losing its stake but this does not mean religion is wrapping up to leave. Religion itself is bigger than any man-made structure like the church. In actuality, what is happening is that movements of people are constructing new narratives of religion from the insides of organisations. This begs the question, “who will take a theological or ethical responsibility if things go wrong?” What if the trust in data, personal performance, the unrelentless demand for personal/organisational/market growth hits a wall?
The case and call for spiritual leadership
If organisations cannot be the carrier of religion, is there still space for individual spirituality — especially for the people in charge of the organisations? Can they personally and from the functional role they play within the organisation, profit from spiritual leadership?
Spiritual leadership comprises the values, attitudes and behaviours that are necessary to intrinsically motivate one’s self and others so that they have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and membership (Louis Fry, 2003). This theory draws on the ethics, values, motivation, work/life balance, and leadership elements of an organisation. Spiritual leadership is concerned with helping employees develop and reach their potentials, which in turn, increases productivity at work.
Why is spirituality relevant today for organisations?
Organisations are beginning to step up to their responsibilities as one of the major places where people feel valued the most. Values that were once touted by Priests and Rabbis are also now being welcomed in corporate organisations. For many, the place of work is becoming a place of security and comfort. A place that allows them to blossom at work and in their personal lives. Upon the realisation of this, an intrinsic motivation is released allowing many employees to take pride and identity in their work.
Organisations who give their employees this sense of belonging are in a better position to increase productivity than those who do not. Imagine how much harder an employee will work if their yearning for purpose or of a community is fulfilled at work. Imagine how much more productive a worker will be if they truly believe in the values of the organisation.
Although there is only a handful of research ongoing in this field, workplace spirituality nonetheless has demonstrated implications on workplace performances, moral decision making and attitudes towards ethical issues. It allows employees to be true and authentic to themselves without fear of different treatment or punishment and this has a major impact on performance and retention.
Core items of spiritual leadership
The belief in a god is one form of spirituality. However, workplace spirituality is not strictly about organised religion, nor its tenets. Many people among us give no credence to the idea of a supernatural big guy who sits afloat the universe and hypothetically controls the affairs of mankind. Are they excluded from practicing spirituality at work? Can they perhaps adapt to some of the spiritual practices?
Langton et al. (2013) identify three streams of spirituality: (1) personal inner experience based on interconnectedness, (2) guiding principles, virtues, ethics, values, emotions, wisdom, and intuition, and (3) the link between one’s personal inner experience and how that experience is modelled in outer behaviours, principles, and practices.
Furthermore, what characterises a spiritual leadership and how workplace spirituality is implemented varies from organisation to organisation. Let us explore some of the core items of spiritual leadership as may be found in organisations.
1. A sense of purpose
Monetary gains are important but a very strong sense of purpose differentiates organisations that accommodate spirituality from those that do not. Organisations that embrace spirituality tend to value a sense of purpose above all else. Their employees are motivated by a purpose they believe in and are more than willing to defend. Since a sense of purpose is shaped by the things one believes in and values, it becomes a personal code of behaviour and the motivation that drives one toward leading a life based on those values. Nurturing the employees’ sense of purpose helps them to keep going even when things get tough and become more tenacious at their work. Such employees are self-conscious and are firm on what compromises they are (or not) willing to make in order to realise their (and their organisation’s) short-term and long-term goals.
2. Freedom of expression
Employees are given enough room to express their frustrations, criticisms or suggestions. In many organisations, it is an unofficial rule that the leadership’s decision cannot be questioned, scrutinised or overturned by subordinates. Spiritual leadership, on the contrary, creates a room in which employees are allowed to voice their opinions on various subject matters and the leadership is humble enough to consider them and welcome feedback from them. This not only fosters a culture of openness and honesty, it also boosts the employees’ confidence in contributing more unique ideas that may otherwise not be shared at all. Delayering a highly hierarchical organisation is one major way of achieving such a culture of freedom and openness.
3. Gratitude – Recognition of employee accomplishments
What is most interesting about gratitude is that it is multi-dimensional. It could be understood as thankfulness to a supreme being, but in secular terms, it could also be expressed to partners, clients, colleagues or team members. This can make a huge difference for the culture and mindset of an organisation. Imagine an organisation where the leadership does not shy away from bold expressions of gratitude. Gratitude to employees for their accomplishments or recognition of their hard work and skills does not only acknowledge their strengths but is also an affirmation of the value they bring to the table. It must also be noted that not all employees are motivated the same way, so while some may like to be publicly recognised, others may prefer to be recognised in silence. Therefore in such cases, a private message or a reward could easily get the job done.
4. Mindfulness and resilience
Research shows that mindfulness fosters emotional intelligence and the ability to process emotional experience. Therefore with all things being equal, mindfulness could be a very useful tool in decision making, especially for those in leadership positions. This combined with a resilient spirit can create an indestructible coalition for action that focuses beyond the present and beyond any individual. A spiritual leadership knows how to use this for the furtherance of the employees, towards the eccentrics, for engaging minorities and for the overall betterment of the organisation.
5. Incorruptible engagement for justice
A spiritual leadership takes a firm stand for justice. This could manifest itself in an array of ways. This could come in the form of providing safe working conditions for all employees. It could be closing in a gap in wages between people within the same tax bracket. The leadership assumes the role of a ‘deacon’, a word that originates from the Greek ‘Diakonus’ meaning servant and is regarded as a communicative agent for doing good who also cares for people in dire need.
Organisations nowadays are heavily laden with tensions and conflicts. People exhibit toxic behaviours that hurt other people, this is why there is a direct call for a practical expression of spiritual leadership because fairness and justice is a non-negotiable and must be addressed as such.
6. Loving others
Compassion and commitment without a doubt are core values that are welcomed with approval even in secular environments. Beyond compassion and commitment to your organization‘s and personal objective, there is a deeper layer to both C‘s from a theological standpoint. Compassion in the Greek where it takes its origin means something that moves you in your innermost. It’s more than an attitude, it is a true feeling of empathy. A feeling that shares in the struggles, experiences and challenges of others as though they were yours. From a secular perspective one could relate to the empathy vs. sympathy discourse (Brene Brown) — but spiritual leadership would include also the dimensions of belief and immanent transcendent experiences which can also lead to spiritual stewardship for the others (refer item 10).
7. Reasonable decision-making
Decision-making is another one of those items that gallantly graces the value statement of a lot of organisations. However, there is more to this than a mere statement comfortably sitting within the confines of a printed sheet. It is the duty of the leadership to have a clear understanding of individual (micro), organisational and social (macro) ethics. Such ethical frameworks can be applied towards decision-making. Decision-making (or sense-making) should be the core activity of people in positions of responsibility. This approach should then be directly linked to the company’s ethical understanding of ‘responsibility’ on both individual and organisational levels.
8. Mindful and transparent communication, including mindful listening
“We do not hire people to tell them what to do, but to tell us what we should do”. These were the very words of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. This quote carries even more relevance for us today. But how can this be applied without standing the risk of looking indecisive and clueless?
Many leaders tend to be extroverts — although introverts could also make great leaders but are often less promoted compared to their extroverted counterparts (Grant, 2010) — and therefore, going based on stereotypes, talk more than they listen. The art of mindful communication involves listening and can open up major avenues to sense, analyse, interpret and better integrate people’s expression (based on explicit and non-explicit communication) into decision making processes and mindful reactions.
Communication today is highly varied especially now in the digital age where there is a complex dimension of communicative channels. Ironically, the quality of communication is deteriorating despite the multiple channels of communication that we have today. There is a higher chance of miscommunication due to factors like acceleration, impatience, lack of time and complexities of communicative channels. The more reason we need to embrace transparency in communication. Not doing more of the same but rather develop an inclination for mindful communication, offering time for silence (headspace), deep work for quality and creative work that intercepts the relentless schedule of corporate communication.
9. Offering spiritual practices
Religion and spirituality have been around for as long as humanity has. It has survived many millennia and its rich traditions, rituals and practices of meditation, practicing silence, praying, reflectiveness, thanksgiving, community building, positive thinking… continue to live on. Its richness can be adapted into secular organisations via a spiritual leadership. A short moment of quietness that lasts a minute or two before the commencement of a meeting devoted to meditation, reflection or for thanksgiving can also be integrated into the organisation’s operations. A senior executive at a well known German corporation who is a skeptic of spirituality and mindfulness applied this rule to his meeting structure and admitted that it indeed changed everything for him for the better. These spiritual practices if adopted by organisations can go a long way into transforming how we work.
10. Open awareness
Spirituality exposes us to an extra dimension of consciousness within organisational contexts. Whether it be about ourselves, the surrounding collective or the organisation itself, a habit of contextual open awareness will ultimately offer a wider perspective in terms of emotional and cultural behaviour. Search Inside Yourself refers to a higher resolution in terms of emotional awareness. This gives birth to a new culture within leadership spheres that help them better handle their and others’ emotions (such as anger, anxiety, sadness, etc.) which are brought along into organisational environments. It is easy to notice and embrace feelings of joy and happiness, but managerial literacy does not usually involve a proper understanding of such things that are mostly left out to therapists, teachers, pastors and spiritual counsellors to deal with.
One of the most common elements of spirituality as we can perceive is meditation. Meditation could come in the form of praying, contemplating or reflecting. One thing this element of spirituality does is teaches us how to focus on something. Even when we speak of mindfulness, the attention is placed on breathing in and out, transcendent experience and an awareness on a metaphysical level. If you would like to try it out, take a quick break, then close your eyes and take a deep breath, inhale and exhale for only five minutes.
Stray thoughts and distractions are however bound to happen during such exercises. While mindful exercises train one to focus on one thing, other spiritual exercises focus on a narrative drawn from religious texts such as the Lord’s prayer or a psalm. These texts are contextual and cannot be abused. There are stringent rules that serve as guidelines when applying the historical texts in the present (homiletics). These practices are traditions forged by thousands of years of historical application. The theological treasure and beauty that can be taken from this is that by meditating and praying these ancient texts, you are joining a community of other ardents in body and mind — those from time immemorial and those in the future to come.
Focus can be achieved through resilience which opens up another rich layer. If your resilience is based on an inner calmness, then you may be able to show emotional restraint. Avoiding impulsive emotional omnishambles can yield in a cognitive resilience that promotes more focus on your work, which can then become “deep work”, which again results in quality, creativity and impactfulness.
Leadership can set a precedent and be a role model for a mindful and spiritual culture in an organisation without burdening the organisation as a conveyor for religion.
If we take a close look at the above core items, we can relate a lot of them with emotional intelligence such as mindfulness and engaging with others. But spiritual leadership takes it a step further, as shown above, into a zone where it does not fit into classic leadership paradigms. Leadership is stereotypically associated with strengths and powerplay, though most people are aware of what consequences could possibly come thereafter. On the contrary, effective leadership is related to performance which cannot be relativised at all.
If we put people in the center, we should know then that it is the leadership’s responsibility to take care of their needs which of course would also include their emotional, philosophical and even spiritual needs. This leads to questions such as, “What makes a good life?” “How do I find purpose and in the end overall happiness, or to borrow a theological language, holistic peace in my life (as we would refer to happiness as a possible outcome depending on each person‘s life philosophy)?”
Spirituality and religion are not firmly supported by the systems of corporations although some offer rooms for that, for example, Facebook and others always provide multi-functional space for self-organised spiritual and religious activities (from yoga to religious prayer groups). As some management models offer an integration of the normative side of management to corporate culture, there is also room for spiritual aspects attached to people in the organisation. As shown above, focusing on spiritual and theological aspects of leadership can play a role in fostering leadership habits, which have direct results on the organisation, its people and stakeholders.
Again, most organisations do not naturally support virtues like humility. They rely on strong leadership role models that reject vulnerability whether it be on the personal or the business side of things.
There seems to be no absolute solution to these issues in the foreseeable future, but establishing a conversation about an organisational collective (corporate) mindset and establishing applicable values and business ethics (compliance and governance) can perhaps clear the path that the leadership and stakeholders can committedly tread to achieve this.
This opens up a huge opportunity to foster collective resilience, attention to organisational behaviour, mindful decision-making and therefore, an active consciousness about the organisation‘s sense-making. These remain some of the most challenging practices of today’s leadership; being mindful and making rational decisions (including decisions regarding data and culture) in a highly VUCA world, as well as making sense in terms of the strategic narrative of an organisation and most importantly, to find, provide and communicate the organisational purpose to employees, candidates, partners and customers.