Spirituality in the Workplace

1996, by Martin Rutte
President, Livelihood, Santa Fe, New Mexico • (505) 466-1510

(This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the popular business book, Heart at Work, by Jack Canfield & Jacqueline Miller.)

The nature and meaning of work are undergoing a profound evolution. Two forces are helping to catalyze the momentum of this process — fear and the emergence of both a more personal and widespread spirituality.

The fear is about losing our job and having to do more with less. And the emergence of spirituality in the workplace points to the desire that there be more to work than just survival. We yearn for work to be a place in which we both experience and express our deep soul and spirit.

Fear in the Workplace

There are several factors causing an increase of fear in the workplace.

The first is massive corporate downsizing. The benefit of downsizing is that it does increase profits. Moreover, it cuts the fat and the excess while streamlining the organization. But downsizing also has a downside. It causes pain and suffering. In addition to the pain felt by those people who have been let go, those who are still left are asked to increase production with less resources, in the same amount of time, and for the same pay.

They feel stressed out and bone-tired. They are anxious about the security of their job and often are resentful. And most painful of all, they don't see any light at the end of the tunnel.

Downsizing works in the short-term; in the long-term, what's lost is loyalty, engagement, experience, creativity and the full expression of spirit.

A second factor is that more work is moving offshore. Years ago, it was just manufacturing work. Now it's also service jobs. India and Israel, for example, are becoming key sites for the development of computer software. We thought that there were certain types of work that would always remain in the developed world — that these were "our jobs," like service and new technology development — it's just no longer so.

And what about successful companies laying people off? That's never happened before. The understanding used to be that when a company was in fiscal trouble it would lay off people and when the company was successful, it would keep and even hire people. But with re-engineering and new advanced technology, there is a need for less people, so successful companies are downsizing.

When you put all these factors together, you're taking the work contract — the implicit agreement that I would come to work for you for life, the belief in security of employment — and smashing it. The message is crystal clear, "You don't have a secure job anymore." And that causes insecurity, it causes anxiety, and it causes fear.

There is a growing sense of "dis-spiritedness" in individuals and in the overall workplace. The spirit has been shut down. It can't fully express itself. There is a sense of dis-engagement. It may not be completely quantifiable, but people can and do feel the lack of spirit in their workplace.

All of this doesn't need to paint a completely bleak picture. We can look at these very same factors from another, more useful perspective — the spiritual. The security we thought we got from the corporation is a myth. Real security comes from a connection to that which is truly secure — the spirit. We are in the process of moving from "dependent children" at work, with the parental company looking after us, to really coming into our full, adult Selfhood. From this new reality we can begin exploring and expressing more of our true spiritual selves.

The Emergence of Spirituality

In addition to fear, there is a compelling inner longing for spiritual fulfillment. There are several factors present in society reflecting the emerging desire for personal and collective spirituality.

The baby boomer generation is now entering its 50's. People are reaching mid-life and looking at those issues that are characteristic for this age – issues such as: "What is my legacy?"; "What are the long-term values that I want to leave behind?"; "In what other arenas of life do I want to invest my energies now that I've reached the peak of my career?"; "What is really important to me as I begin to see my parents, aunts and uncles start to die?" These kinds of thoughts are usual for people in mid-life. What is unusual, however, is that the baby boomer generation is so large. When it begins to think about these issues, then society follows. As spirituality emerges for baby boomers, the whole of society is affected.

Concern and involvement with the bio-environment also reflect an emerging sense of the spiritual. The environment is both life supporting and gives us an awareness and consciousness of the whole. It reveals to us how we are interconnected and interdependent. And when you think about that, that's a very spiritual metaphor.

"When the concept of human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the Cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest sense." Fritjof Capra

Yet another factor is the maturing of the scientific paradigm. We thought we could solve all the world's problems with science. We thought we could eventually understand everything through science. But the more we know, the more we find out we don't know. Science has been divorcing itself from the spiritual for several hundred years. However, science without spirituality is like a wave without the ocean. A growing number of scientists realize this and are moving more into spiritual exploration.

These three factors are indicative of the overall emergence of spirituality in our time. Popular culture also reflects this in the growing number of books, movies, and TV programs about spirituality. And spirituality in the workplace is part of this phenomenon.

What Is Spirituality?

I've found that when people ask me the question, "What is spirituality?", what they're really concerned about is, “Will I have 'the Answer'”? or some other dogmatic response. They're afraid that I've already got spirituality defined and that they will disagree with my definition, which will then cause separation. People are afraid that I (or anyone else speaking about spirituality) will shove a particular point of view down their throats. This approach offers the listener no opportunity to search for his/her own truth.

The journey is not about spirituality as "the answer," but about spirituality as "the question." A question allows you to look more deeply. It allows you to search for what's true for you, and in so doing, deepen your own experience. But ultimately, what moving from answer to question does is make it safe and permissible to explore this territory in a way that is useful.

What is spirituality for you? Where is spirit or spirituality not showing up in your workplace? Where is it flourishing? Explore these kinds of questions, at work, for yourself, your relationships, your division and your company. And in this questioning, in this exploration, notice the deepening of your own experience of spirituality at work.

Spirituality in the Workplace

What would a more spiritual workplace mean for people? It would mean that work would move from merely being a place to get enough money to survive — from just earning our daily bread — to being a place of livelihood. By livelihood I mean a place where we both survive and are fully alive. We are alive in that our spirit fully expresses itself. And through our contribution, we allow other people's spirits to be nourished and to flourish. Livelihood has, at its core, three meanings for work: survival (you're alive), enlivening of the individual Self (you're aliveness), and enlivening of the collective Self (their aliveness).

What are the benefits of a more spiritual workplace? One of the primary benefits is that people are more in touch with the Source of creativity. As business people, we realize the value of creativity and innovation. Creativity is a cornerstone of business. It allows us to come out with new products and services that really are of service. It allows us to do more with less. In essence, creativity leads to more efficient contribution.

As we move more into a service and technological economy, we want to continually expand innovation and creativity. But you can't demand that of people. "Human capital" has to be treated differently than "financial capital." You have to create an atmosphere in which creativity and innovation flourish; and that is accomplished through the bountiful expression of spirit. When we are more in touch with the Source of creativity, there is also revitalization, renewal and resilience.

Another benefit is increased authenticity in communication. A lot of the work I do as a consultant is to create a "safe space" in which people feel permission to talk about their truth without fear of reprisal. Businesses aren't accustomed to doing this as a matter of normal everyday practice. However, when the truth is allowed to be safely and respectfully spoken, old problems clear up, new possibilities emerge, and people feel more aligned. They work together in a trusting team.

Increased ethical and moral behavior is yet another benefit. But who cares if a company is ethical? Isn't business just a place where you see how much you can get ahead? In a word, no. An important value of ethical behavior for a business is the development of trust. We trust people who operate in an ethical framework. Employees trust employers. Employers trust employees. And customers who trust a company stay customers longer.

Spirituality in the workplace also promotes the expression of talent, brilliance and genius — talent in the sense of our Divine gifts; brilliance in terms of our intellect and the intensity of the light we have to shine; and genius not as a scarce commodity, but as something that everyone has. Our true job is to connect with that genius. And moreover, spirituality in the workplace also leads to increased self-fulfillment, contentment and a deep sense of belonging.

In most businesses today, spirit and spirituality aren't talked about. The first thing that needs to happen is to make it safe and permissible to talk about it, as normally and as naturally as the many other conversations we have at work, such as: profitability, innovations and personnel issues.

We start this simply by beginning. Talk to those you trust, talk to others in business, talk to your colleagues, but begin to talk about it. There may be an initial fear, but after a while, the momentum will be unstoppable.

Managing in the New Spiritual Workplace

Today, we live in the transition period between the old definition of work as survival and the new definition of work as livelihood. New management techniques and new organizational structures are needed to handle this emerging context.

Management in the survival mode has been based on command and control. The way you get people to produce is by telling them what to do and making sure it gets done. But in a spiritual workplace, productivity is achieved through nurturing the expression of the self and the spirit. Our job, as leaders, is to facilitate the discovery of spirit, to esteem it, to celebrate it, and to hold others accountable for their expression of it. Support your employees and colleagues in being clear that part of their job responsibility is to fully express their spirit, their life purpose, and their gifts.

A senior vice-president of a large utility company told me that one of the roles of companies in the future will be to help employees discover their life purpose and to make sure that their work is consistent with and demanding of that purpose. “Imagine what would happen," he said, "if you had a company in which all the people were doing their life's work. You would have more loyalty, more resilience, more creativity, more innovation, and a deeper sense of self-reliance, self-renewal and self-generation."

Another new management function will be helping people unleash and express their full, creative spirit. One of the ways to do this is to reconnect people with their artistry, whether that's music, painting, dancing, poetry or cooking. Poet, David Whyte, author of The Heart Aroused, goes into companies and reads poetry. Boeing Aircraft is one of his ongoing clients. The managers he works with begin to realize other aspects of themselves. Poetry helps them delve more deeply into their creative self, and it helps contribute to new insights, both personal and corporate. (Another great way for you and your employees to reconnect with your creativity is to read and do the exercises in The Artists Way, by Julia Cameron.)

An Invitation

The next phase of the evolution of work has begun. Spirituality is becoming more openly recognized as an integral part of work. If this is something that speaks to you, that you want more of in your workplace, I invite you to jump in!