Work-place Connectedness – Michael Morwood

Book Review: Julia Tyack

 Spirituality and the work place

 Case study:

Ben Smith owns an aged care centre with rooms for 90 residents.  Ben oversees the management of the centre, keeping very careful control over finances.  He would like to win awards for ‘best practice’. The centre is not full, but Ben expects the director of nursing to find more residents.  Ben is reluctant to hire more staff, even though more are needed to handle the number of residents he already has.  Ben has minimal contact with the staff at the centre, whether nursing or lifestyle, and spends most of his days in the office, often with members of his family who also work at the Centre and who have no formal training in aged care.  Ben drives a Porsche which he parks almost every day in the parking bay reserved for Disabled Parking Only.

The level of care at the centre is below standard. ‘Person-centre care’ is advertised but not implemented.  Staff members are under stress and feel powerless to implement changes needed for person-centered care and lifestyle. The key staff members make no secret of the fact they would rather work elsewhere.  Ben is sometimes heard to remark, in response to requests from staff for needed funds, that he is running a business, not a charity.  He finds it difficult to delegate responsibility especially if any decisions impinge on finances, and  he comes across to staff members as a controlling, overseeing Boss who wants his business to be profitable and to win recognition.
What has ‘Spirituality’ to do with Ben, his life and his business?

The first thing to note is that we are talking about spirituality, not religion.  Ben may well be religious in the sense of being a faithful, practicing member of his religious denomination.  On the other hand, he may have no religious affiliation or beliefs at all.  At issue here is not religion, but spirituality.

It is easier to describe what spirituality points to rather than trying to define it.  Spirituality is about being in touch with a dimension of life that is deeper and more important than the material world around us.  Spirituality leads us to reflect on the non-material, such as the values that drive our lives and the questions of meaning and purpose that break into our consciousness.  It looks to what connects all people as we ponder the universe in which we live, the development of the human species and how we are in relationship with one another.  And in looking to how we are connected, spirituality challenges us to explore and to enact what we need to do to enhance relationships (with the world and with people) for the betterment of all concerned.  Spirituality is not about set answers.  It requires adult thought, time for reflection and a willingness to be exposed to new data and new insights.  Spirituality is about integrating our lives and all we do in a picture far bigger than our own concerns and successes.
The ‘mid-life crisis’ is one way in which ‘spirituality’ sometimes demands attention for business or professional people.  It is a time for personal re-assessment as people come to grips with questions such as, what is life all about? ; what is really important for me? or what are the values I want to characterize the way I relate with people and how I work?   But even without a ‘crisis’, these are questions all of us will reflect on sometime.  These questions are at the heart of ‘spirituality’.

While Ben may be an overstated case study for the sake of making a point, there’s something of Ben in all of us, and usually we are the last to know it and we find it hard to admit.  We are all expert at playing roles and getting by; shielding ourselves from ‘home truths’.  That’s why spirituality is such an important matter.  A genuine spirituality invites us into reflection that gets beneath the roles we play in life. It challenges us to examine the illusions we like to carry about ourselves and to breakdown some of the defense mechanisms we use to shield us from the truth about ourselves.  On the positive side, it invites us into reflection on our giftedness and the qualities people admire in us.  Spirituality does this within the big picture of the universe in which we live, the planet that nurtures us, the relationships that nurture and sustain us, our bonding with all people, and, if we choose, our openness to and relationship with a transcendent mystery that grounds all of existence.

‘Spirituality’ has become a buzz word in recent times.  Some of the articles on spirituality, especially those on ‘Spirituality and Management’, could have been lifted straight out of Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People?  Spirituality then becomes a matter of getting people in managerial positions to relate better with people.  Ben could certainly do with a manual to help him improve his people skills, and doubtless his business would improve considerably if he did so.  Yet, something would still be lacking. That elusive ‘something’ is what would push Ben beyond just the application of tactics to help his business run better; a thorough review of himself, what he stands for, what his key values are; what drives him in life; how he sees himself in the key relationships and with the world in which he lives (the environment), and with his family, his co-workers and his friends, society and the wider community.  All this is well beyond ‘means to an end’ for success in the business world.  It is about honestly appraising oneself in order to be the best person we can be in all these key relationships.

The barrier for most people to exposing themselves to a deep spirituality is actively doing and making it happen.  We get caught up in the world of productivity, documentation, deadlines and accountability.  We need to be profitable and to be well thought of. The technological world does not help, as we sit for long hours at the laptop, making sure we are on call for the mobile phone, or we escape into the world of I-Pods, computer games and cable television.

To engage in a worthwhile exploration of the ‘spirituality’ of our lives requires reflection.  This in turn requires some stillness that allows us to be present in the world around us in a different way; a way that helps us connect with that world and allows us to evaluate our relationship with it.  An exploration of spirituality invites us to reflect on and give a response to questions like what is the nature of my relationship with ‘someone’, and what are my relationships with others in key areas of my life?

1. The world in which I live

We are living through one of the greatest shifts in worldview since the discovery that the sun does not move around the earth and the earth is not the centre of the universe.  Newtonian physics which worked so well for our understanding of and predictions about the world in which we live is all at sea with and not even applicable for the sub-atomic, quantum world where unpredictability reigns supreme.  Yet even in the midst of that unpredictability, quantum physicists speak a language invoking relatedness, connectedness and mystery.  Everything in the universe is in relationship with everything else.

At the other extreme is contemporary knowledge about the age and size of our universe and the age of this planet. Science is telling us a ‘new story’ about our origins: every atom in our bodies was manufactured in the massive explosion of a supernova four and a half billion years ago and has been on a cosmic journey ever since.  Some scientists speak of the human species in terms of giving stardust a way of becoming conscious or the universe finding a way to become consciously aware and reflective.  ‘Who or what am I?’ then becomes an even more awesome and mysterious question to ponder.  And for the first time in human history we have a story to tell that is common to all people.  We are all in this together, and if religious people want to invoke a God at work, then it is surely time at this stage of human development to let ‘God’ imagery and language be universal and inclusive of all people rather than locked into claims of exclusive access to an elsewhere, overseeing deity.

The earth has nourished the human species into existence. We come from the earth; we cannot exist without a healthy planet.  The planet is not ours to dominate and despoil.  We are not masters of it.  Only in recent times have we become attentive to this and our attentiveness must now go beyond merely the concern about water and the pollution of the atmosphere and what steps we must take to remedy humanity’s abuse of the planet.  Again, we must go beyond mere tactics to fix something.  We must go deeper and establish, articulate and promote how we see ourselves in relationship with this wonderful planet on which we depend for our very existence.  We have to move into attitudes of wonder, appreciation, respect, reverence and care, and make these attitudes evident in all aspects of our lives.

2. My family

‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of the greatest stories ever written for children and adults. The little boy receives some precious lessons about life and relationships when he complains about the time spent on watering the one and only rose on his little asteroid: It is the time you wasted on your rose that makes the rose so important.  Then when he comes to earth and finds he has to learn how to tame the fox in order to become friends, he learns two more lessons: What is important is invisible to the eye and ‘You’ are responsible forever for what you tame.  Doubtless the story became a best seller because it tapped into the wisdom of lived experience and resonated with what people have learned about keeping relationships healthy and strong, especially those we profess to be more important than any others (our own family bonds).

Alfred Kinsey, of the famous Kinsey Report on sexual attitudes almost 60 years ago, conducted a survey of thousands of marital breakdowns and concluded that the most important ingredient in any marriage was ‘the fierce determination that it would succeed’.  This fierce determination has to overcome two of the most common causes of breakdown in marriages: putting business ahead of family and failure to communicate.  It is not uncommon, for example, for a husband and father to presume his family knows he loves them; don’t they see him go out every day and put hours into his work for their benefit?  In time the ‘busy-ness’ strangles the vitality that was once in the bonds.  There is no time to ‘waste’ with the children or the wife.  In some homes the control and order of the business world is enacted to ensure a ‘well-run’ home with the children kept in order.  Play, fun, time shared enjoying one another’s company and genuinely listening to one another hardly get a look in.  Spirituality would have us stop and reflect seriously on how we are ‘present’ to people closest to us.  It would have us examine the ‘unseen’ and the ‘unsaid’ in our home life.  It would have us ask who we really are to our spouses and our children.  What values do they see operating in how we relate with them and what do they think we most value?  What are the values we most want them to learn from us?

3. My work and my work colleagues 

Any analysis of Benss workplace would reveal systemic discontent and the reality that Ben seems to have no idea how to relate with his staff. While this case study may seem exaggerated, it nevertheless reflects attitudes that are relatively common among hard-headed managerial types, blinkered with their concern to run a ‘tight ship’ and to be productive.  Listening to staff, and including staff in decisions that impinge on their workplace may appear somewhere in the company’s ’Mission Statement’, but in practice it is not unusual for staff to think that managers have no idea or appreciation of what happens on the floor.

Ben’s relationship with his staff could improve considerably if he underwent a course in management and staff relations.  Again, this would be a band-aid approach.  Ben needs to be challenged at the deeper, more personal level of values, meaning, purpose, trust, respect and credibility.  Ben’s major difficulty in running this business is that he is not credible; is not trusted by his staff, and is not respected by them.  That can only translate into his business not being respected in general.  The pity is that Ben cannot see any of this; not only has he no awareness of it, it would not cross his mind that people working under him can see, and lament , the absence of interpersonal values in significant areas of the workplace.

The spiritual questions for Ben are:

  • What are the values that drive you in your business?
  • What are the values that drive your interaction with members of your staff?
  • How do you implement those values?
  • How do you know or measure whether you are successful in implementing them?

Once he faces these questions, Ben is in a better position to take on board the wealth of material available on spirituality and management.  He will find advice such as being inclusive of staff, listening, letting them know they have been heard, affirming their gifts and achievements, rather than being boss and overseer who calls the shots.  If by temperament he cannot do this, he must ensure he has a manager in place that can do it.  An important part of this bigger picture is a concern for the spirituality of the staff.  Staff members want to feel their work is worthwhile and enriching and that they are contributing in a significant way.  Part of their spiritual needs is to be respected; to feel they are making a contribution; to have a wholesome sense of identity in being associated with this workplace and to feel at home in the work environment.  Ben’s staff members don’t experience this.  Instead they are subjected daily to frustration, powerlessness and discontent.

Once Ben begins to reflect at a deeper level rather than finding short term solutions to problems that keep surfacing he would do well to read:

  • Presence – Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society ( Senge, Peter; Scharmer, C. Otto; Jaworski, Joseph; Flowers, Betty Sue. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. London. 2005) The book outlines some essential ingredients for effecting profound change:

We need to shift from downloading our habitual ways of thinking and acting, and stop being defensive about our interests and profit margin.   Our natural tendency is to defend our interests, and we invariably end up reinforcing pre-established mental models.  Regardless of the outcome, we end up thinking we’re ‘right’.   At best, we get better at what we have always done, and we remain secure in the cocoon of our own world-view, isolated from the larger world? (p11)

We need to stop the controlling mechanisms and move into ways of being fully conscious and aware of the present moment.  This movement challenges us to let go of the defensive barriers and structures that surround us as ‘the boss’, and puts us in touch with the moods, feelings and aspirations in the work place.   We can then shift the mood of the workplace from conformity and obedience to participation.   We can shift from the usual treating the symptoms agenda, and think in terms of the spiritual dimension.

In Ben’s situation, for example, lip-service is given to the publicized ‘person-centered care’.  What if Ben were to meet with staff have an open discussion on:

  • What are the key values we want to see operating at every level here?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What do we need to do collectively to achieve these goals?
  • How will we evaluate our efforts?


And what if Ben urged his staff members to think outside the usual box, affirming his willingness to listen? The key in doing this is inclusion.  No profound change will take place in any organization if the people in the organization are operating from a position of powerlessness.   Many visions are doomed from the outset because those who articulate them, whether consciously or not, are coming from a place of powerlessness.  When this happens, people formulate visions that are disconnected from a shared understanding of present reality and a sense of shared responsibility for that reality. If people are still externalizing their problems, they create, in a sense, ?externalized visions.  This amounts to a kind of change in strategy for fixing problems which they have not yet seen their part in creating.  Only when people begin to see from within the forces that shape their reality and to see their part in how those forces might evolve, does vision become powerful.  Everything else is just a vague hope.
That is why most visions that management teams invoke are superficial. (P132)

4. The Wider Community 

A wholesome spirituality suggests we can no longer afford to compartmentalize our lives.  It suggests that we have to look at integration at all levels. This is a personal task for each of us as we reflect on our relationships with our neighbours.  We could be mindful of someone who suggested 2,000 years ago that the relevant question was not “Who is my neighbour?” but rather  “How do I be a neighbor?”, especially in relation to people on the other side of a cultural chasm?  This is a spiritual and vital issue for the world at large.  Each of us can contribute to breaking down prejudices and barriers, bit for some of us this could require a lot of thought and rethinking of ingrained, unexamined biases.  Attention to the spiritual dimension of life will challenge us to reflect and to change if we need to.

Ben would love to see his aged care centre have high standing in the community.  Despite the efforts at publicity through the local papers, the centre has little warmth. The staff is overworked and relatives of residents complain about the lack of care.  What you have is a business with many hard-working people trying to hold it together, and not very happily at that. Yet, if Ben acted on the spiritual dimension as suggested above, there would inevitably be an overflow into the surrounding community, and this in turn would be good for business.

Some years ago Fortune Magazine conducted a survey to find the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ in the USA and concluded that what made them great companies to work for were:

  • they were trustworthy
  • they were fair and honest in their dealings;
  • they earned respect and showed it;
  • the workers had a sense of belonging, a sense of being in the family.
  • working there was meaningful and fulfilling.
  • Any community would take pride in a local business exhibiting such traits.  Ben could achieve this goal for his business if he opened himself and his business to the prospect of radical, profound change.

Questions such as the following can be used to lead us into this reflection: 

  • What values drive or guide my life?
  • What gives meaning and purpose to my life?
  • What causes me to feel incongruent, not true to myself?
  • What can I do to overcome this?
  • What time do I give to quiet reflection about life and what is meaningful to me?
  • What are the qualities in me that people most admire or appreciate?
  • Think of 4 significant people (e.g. spouse, child, friend, work colleague). What values do each of them see me living by?
  • How well do I care for myself?
  • Where do personal growth, maturity and development lie for me?
  • In what ways can I enrich and balance my life?
  • How do I get in touch with the deeper movements of my heart?
  • How do I defend myself from looking too closely at what I am really like?
  • (If there is any religious belief) Where is my faith being challenged to mature beyond what I have been taught to personal appropriation and ownership?  Can I articulate not only what I believe but why, after personal reflection and thought do I now believe it?
  • How does my faith give meaning to who I am and what I do?  Has my faith perspective shifted significantly in recent years?
  • Which relationships have most nurtured me into the person I now am?
  • How am I creative?  Is there a zany side to me?   Who sees it?