>Soul and Spirit at Workby Alan Briskin
In the work world, the willingness to consider aspects of the spiritual is still quite new. Many are willing to discuss the benefits of more humanistic work environments, where honesty and ethics are truly valued, and where flexible hours and decent wages and benefits are the norm. Many businesses also experiment with programs for personal and organizational renewal, systems thinking, and learning cultures. Yet so many of these efforts fall short of their aims; they seem neither to satisfy the deeper human yearning for connection nor to alter the rhythms and purpose of work that may need revision.
Somewhere between the extreme poles that work is hell and work is a place for ultimate meaning lies a fundamentally new vision of workplace and work. This vision sees our actions as an extension of the human soul, in which creative tensions and light and dark aspects of individual and group behavior must be brought to awareness, honored, and challenged. The language of spirituality, easily misunderstood and abused, has reemerged of late because no other belief system, not capitalism or humanism, or even traditional faith traditions, speaks so directly to our yearning for connection to nature, for authentic relationship, and for higher purpose on the one hand and to our own and others' woundedness and need for healing on the other.
At first, the coupling of spirituality and work seems to create an oxymoron. How, in a marketplace driven by fear and the struggle for dominance, can spirituality and work coexist? And possibly more disturbing, how can spirituality not be a new guise for narrow career goals and a type of individual success that suddenly includes a measure of inner peace along with other material possessions? Though we must all learn to care for ourselves, the focus on "me" alone has the effect of limiting our point of view and narrowing our fields of vision.
Paradoxically, when we identify the needs of others and of the world around us, life's purpose takes on vitality and renews our sense of worth. To listen to the soul's voice is to become more mindful, to pay attention to the splitting and fragmentation that is in ourselves, in our workplaces, and in the larger community and world. Spiritual inquiry evokes deeper questions that move beyond the immediate problems to concerns with meaning, and makes a contribution, not just at work, but in life as well. Who am I? What are my unique gifts that seek expression in the world? What is the special contribution I must make in this life? How shall I live, knowing I shall die? A thread that passes through the fabric of spiritual longing is that we are connected to some greater purpose, a destiny not utterly of our own choosing.
Discovering this thread seems to promise that we will be connected to our tribe, to the natural world and what is beyond, and then we will not be alone. I have learned again and again in my work with organizations that there is something about how we experience human relationship compassion, authenticity, wholeness that sets in motion hope or despair. It is never the circumstances alone that predict what will happen next.
There is a growing chorus, a social movement in the making, of those who seek meaning, who seek a way to know that their actions matter in the world. This social movement is stretching across the whole of society: in the exploration of new sciences, in the innovative actions of volunteer groups, in new theologies of faith and public life, in economic experiments, and in the workplace. Like the skin stretched over a tribal drum, this social movement has the capacity to bring out the deeper rhythms of life, affirming what we know in our bodies, calling us to a place beyond ourselves.
Can we seek together to ask why now? Can we address the urgency without panic? Do we understand the stakes involved and the consequences if we fail to heed this collective calling? These are the questions that are stirring at the end of the millennium, obligating some of us to wrestle with eternal questions and find answers appropriate to this time and place.
Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., a 1.2 billion dollar multinational manufacturer of carpet tiles and flooring products, is an example of one for whom those questions prompted a major shift in his life and work. In 1994, at the age of sixty and preparing for executive succession, he and his salespeople were rebuffed by builders at a site that was a showcase for energy-efficient architecture. The message was clear: the builders thought Anderson and his company just didn't have a clue about sustainable practices. As a result of the rejection, the company began investigating their environmental position, and Anderson, by coincidence, received a copy of Paul Hawken's book, The Ecology of Commerce, which discusses sustainable economies.
Anderson describes the effect of the book as a "spear in the chest." He came to believe that Interface should lead the industry not just in sustainable practices (the degree to which a company depletes natural resources) but also in restorative ones. In his book, Mid-Course Correction, Anderson tells the story of how he came to lead the effort.
Anderson is but one example of a "mid-course correction." There are examples all around us, but often they are at the margins of our awareness. There is a growing network of individuals in conversation with each other, convinced that they are on to something. Over the past five years, dozens of conferences on business and spirituality, dialogue, synchronicity, and soul have sprung up around the country and around the world. What is it? What is the deeper yearning that is felt like a pulse in the psyche? What is it about turning to the emergent, to the unknown, to the possibilities of the transcendent sensed but often dismissed?
There is much rumbling in the workplace about quality, excellence, complexity, accountability, and even spirituality. It is a fair question to ask what might be learned. Yet, I suspect we can approach these questions from a different vantage point.
What is happening in our work settings can be seen as a catalyst and indicator of something larger, a leap into a vastly different way of thinking about human organization, its purpose and promise. To see and act differently will require a collective heroism, one in which our diversity, our aspirations, and our woundedness can be brought to awareness in the spirit of healing and with a sense that we are bound together by our human fate.
In writing on this species adaptation, Mary Catherine Bateson wrote that "essential themes are not clearly marked but rather visible only out of the corner of the eye." The seeking of meaning at work and the quest for work to have meaning will be best witnessed out of the corner of our eye, a peripheral vision of hope and compassion.
Alan Briskin consults to individuals and organizations in areas of leadership and organizational growth leading to purpose, meaning, and effective work strategies. Briskin is also the author of The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler, 1998) and may be reached by e-mail at <email@example.com>.