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Sprituality at work: fad or substance?

By Linda Gibson

Spirituality in the workplace is a model of organizational culture that is on the rise in the United States.

It’s not about employment law and religious accommodation, nor is it about any organized religion or theology. It’s the recognition that promoting, supporting and embracing a positive environment for the whole person can be good for business – and it’s affecting the practices of many organizations, including the technology products and services giant, Hewlett-Packard. Many other companies, from Boeing to Wal-Mart, have actively participated in or held conferences on the subject.

The leading example of a spiritually oriented organization may be Southwest Airlines, well known for its people-based culture and values focus. The unique corporate culture there has contributed to bottom-line results and consistent profitability for Southwest, which has extremely low employee turnover rates and labor costs per miles flown, with on-time arrivals and few customer complaints.

Is the rise of spirituality at work a fad, or does it have substance?

The inner life of the workforce

Over the past decade, there has been a growing acknowledgment among corporations that: employees have an inner life, which is most often separated from their work environment; employees need to find meaning, purpose and vocation in their work to fully utilize their gifts or calling; and, spiritually sensitive organizations can and should provide the means (context, community, environment) to allow the expression and growth of the spiritual side of their employees, managers and leaders. There is even recent evidence that such spiritually sensitive companies experience increased innovation, productivity and bottom-line performance.

Stephen P. Robbins, author of the best-selling textbook “Organizational Behavior,” summarizes the research on spiritual organizations and identifies five common cultural attributes: a meaningful and worthwhile purpose beyond profit; a focus on the development of the individual; mutual trust, honesty and openness between management and the workforce; a wide range of what might be called humanistic work practices, including empowerment and guaranteeing worker rights; and, tolerating employee emotions or allowing people to be themselves on the job – even making work fun.

More than a New-Age fad

Historically, companies thought it best to keep emotions and personal issues away from the workplace, yet this isn’t always possible. And now, employees with positive emotions and passion for their work are sought after by companies such as Southwest Airlines that wants them to display at work such emotional behaviors as being caring and fun-loving. Companies today often seek to match new hires to their organizational culture and values as much as to the job.

But, is it going too far to call this creation of a more open work life environment that more fully embraces human experience spirituality in the workplace? Is this just a New-Age phrase for what might simply be termed people-centered management – a management philosophy common to most companies that have been nationally rated as best places to work? Of course the realization that people make the difference in work performance, translating to profitability, is an important step forward in management practice. But, some companies have been managing with spirituality since their founding – 1939 for Hewlett-Packard. Why now call it spirit at work?

Does this New Age term for personal transformation and finding meaning at work unduly raise peoples’ fears and uncertainties? Even though there is evidence that both employees and managers want to bring their whole selves to work and to include ethical and spiritual values in their workplaces, this can be subject to different interpretations and could open individuals to belittlement and harassment. Certainly there is potential for abuse and religious harassment, regardless of how top management describes this cultural model – leading to legal issues if employees are adversely affected based on religion.

Transcending the Divide

Perhaps, though, there may be a place for spirit at work. For years, studies have shown that many of the so-called spirituality-based principles are popular with employees: having meaningful and purposeful jobs; feeling part of a larger community at work; being able to realize one’s full potential at work (to use and develop their gifts or skills); and being able to integrate and balance work and personal lives. And, more recent generations are especially known for loyalty to relationships and teams, valuing work/life balance and wanting to express their values at work.

Because of this growing interest in revolutionizing organizational culture, scholars and practitioners are now researching the topic. University of Southern California professor Ian Mitroff has called spirituality at work the next major challenge in management in his study on workplace spirituality called “Spiritual Audit of Corporate America” – one of the first scientific studies of its kind. He found that “92 percent of managers would like to include spiritual principles in their organization but that they refrain to do so for different reasons including the lack of practical examples and models, their need to stay critical and not to be associated with the New Age trend, or the wish to be respectful of themselves and others. … All of them agree that more spirituality at work would allow them to live a more integrated and more systemic life as well as allow their organization to become world-class.”

Maybe there is a deep human need in our world today to transcend the divide between personal and work lives.

Values, Gifts, and Legacy

One recent article by Eric Klein, an Encinitas, Calif.-based organizational development consultant, pulls together many of these ideas and suggests that “spirituality is eminently practical – it works. [Since] the soul is the very source of commitment and creativity [and] the way our deepest capacities manifest in us, [it] applies usefully at work.” Klein further suggests that it is possible to reconnect with our soul at work by focusing on “values (the source of your personal passion and purpose), gifts (your unique expression of greatness), and legacy (your core contribution and service).”

Interest in workplace spirituality is high in many organizations today that are trying to create the best environment for a productive and motivated workforce. This interest is likely to grow with the looming retirement of the baby boom generation and the ensuing global talent shortage. Organizations, private and public, are intensely interested in ways to encourage retirement-eligible workers to stay a few more years and to hire good workers. One way to both acquire and manage talent is to be concerned about those issues of utmost importance to workers and create a positive work environment.

Linda Gibson is associate professor of management at Pacific Lutheran University.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2006

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