Is our culture the hurdle toward the broad establishment of spirituality in the workplace?

Joan Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California

"Interconnectedness" is what authors such as Ian Mitroff, Elizabeth Denton, and Margaret Wheatley, to name a few, refer to when they explain spirituality in the workplace. They advocate bringing in your entire "self" into work. Not just the professional or efficient part. And yes, it sounds very tempting to do so, doesn't it?

Just envision this for a moment: Being able to perform optimally because you love your job and the people you work with; being encouraged to bring in ideas because colleagues and supervisors admire your input and know that you are all on the same line when it comes to the wellbeing of the organization you work for, but also: being able to talk about things that bother you. Not having to hide your sadness or elation about something that happened at home, but to be encouraged to share it with your good-natured "family" at work. And to get well-meant advice when you ask for it, because everybody has the best of intentions: Spirituality at Work...

So how did this whole campaign for "spirituality at work" come about? Well, a number of years ago, a growing group of management theorists and writers started claiming that a fundamental tension between rational goals and spiritual fulfillment was haunting workplaces around the world. They explained that today’s workforce is looking for "meaning" at work rather than mere financial prosperity. According to these theorists and writers, people are longing for deeper connection, greater simplicity, and a connection to something higher in their work-environment. And although "spirituality" is probably experienced in different ways by different people, the overpowering unity is that everyone seems to be tired of “parking” part of him- or herself at the door when entering the workplace. Now, if that's not enough, a number of articles published last year explain that this desire has increased since 9-11! Apparently, the working class has interpreted the September 11, 2001-confrontation with the fragility of humanity as an encouragement toward making work-life as rewarding as possible: in every way that matters! But 9-11 was not the only event that led to this increased awareness. Dr. Judy Neal, an icon in the field of Spirituality in the Workplace, concluded that it was a combination of occurrences: from 9-11 to the Enron-fall, and from the Market crash to the detected lack of integrity in organizations. According to Neal, all these problems have left people hungering for "human connection...a deeper sense of meaning that their work is something that contributes in a good way."

One of the overall ways to capture this increased need for wholeness at work is by calling it the "spirituality movement." This movement explains that more and more organizations are now trying to step away from functioning as mere rational systems, and are looking for ways to make room for the spiritual dimension, where there are fewer rules and more meaning, purpose, and a sense of community.

From all of the above we can conclude that a spiritual workplace is one where people bring in their whole self, not just a part, and are appreciated for who and what they are: Totally; Without distinction.

Yet, as Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton mention in their book "A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America," our western way of thinking may very well be the major hurdle toward establishing the holistic approach that a spiritual workplace calls for. And that, in my opinion, can be traced back to our culture of individualism. Think of it this way: Even when family feuds occur we find that the people we grew up with and are linked to by blood, have very diverse viewpoints about issues, seen from their own unique, selfish perspectives. What one considers to be perfectly right and well intended, is seen by another as immoral, wrongful, and mean-spirited. Most of us see our motives toward performing our actions as acceptable to ourselves, yet oftentimes find that these very actions are not well received by family members, let alone friends, or colleagues. Thus raises that the question: Is it possible to establish a spiritual workplace where people bring their entire "being" in, are valued for all of their input and all they represent, and feel content with the "meaning" they find in that environment?

Workplace politics are the most obvious bottleneck that comes to mind here: our culture has trained us to be competitive and ambitious. Very few of us shall ever discard an opportunity to get a promotion, even if we know that one of our colleagues deserves it better. Strategies to make progress in today's aggressive work environment sometimes involve "elbowing" the softer-hearted ones around us, and becoming close buddies with the ones we perceive as potential gateways to the top, even if we don’t really like them. How much more insincere can it get! Nevertheless, our culture has thought us that this is justified. Only the strong survive. So how, then, would this mindset coincide with a spiritual one?

It is, after all, this very phenomenon called workplace politics that makes it unattractive for the well-intended ones among us to bring our entire "being" into work, since that would mean: providing openness about ourselves; exposing our most vulnerable sides, and, hence, allowing the sharks that oftentimes swim in the corporate ocean to take a huge bite in our souls.

Therefore: if a spiritual workplace is one where we should be able to be our entire selves, we have to consider whether we should not change our cultural mindset first. And on the risk of sounding gloomy: that will take at least a few generations to fully effectuate if we would start now… And in the meantime we have to realize that it's a beautiful thing to bring our entire soul into work, yet we should be cautious doing so, because we have to be aware of the fact that everyone has a different personal agenda, probably even one that consistently opposes ours...

So, ending on a slippery note: maybe our age-old capitalistic mindset, which gave us a certain understanding of "rational goals," has finally become obsolete, since it may ultimately turn out to be the great discourager of a spiritual workplace? And maybe, then, we are in need of a new perspective here? Not capitalism, socialism, communism or marxism, but "commonism," which could perhaps be defined as "the establishment of a common perspective about the values for each and everyone of us in life"? I wonder...