Back in the 1970s, Robert Greenleaf's book "Servant Leadership" was one of the first business books I read. What attracted me to him was how deeply his thinking bordered on ‘spirituality’ (as distinct from religion or theology) and the fact that he was talking about this in the context of the workplace. For the 1970s, that was pretty revolutionary.
One of the foundations of Greenleaf's philosophy was the notion of interconnectivity. We all belong to communities, he argued, therefore we are all interconnected. And this means that organizations themselves are a kind of living entity that can themselves be servant-leaders.
I vs. We
But supporting others in the workplace community to grow as individuals, to become wiser, healthier, freer, more accepting and more autonomous is something that normally only arises if we shift consciousness and belief systems.
It’s a sad fact that many work environments are defined by selfishness, greed, ego and competition, while the individuals within them are seen as ‘haves’ or ‘have nots’ on many levels - mentally, emotional, physically, creatively… And that poses some fundamental questions about our sometimes negative and limiting belief structures. Why is our working environment the way it is? And what can we do to transform our individual and collective consciousness so that our behaviors become more mutually supportive?
One place to start is by looking at yourself and asking some fundamental, personal questions. Do I gossip about others? Do I commonly experience conflict with people who have a different value system to mine? Do I incite reactionary behaviors from others? Do I waste materials and resources? Do I constantly try to prove that I’m superior to others? Is profanity, rudeness or insensitivity a normal part of my communication style? Do I use the put-down as a common behavior trait? Am I tolerant and open to other cultures or people who are ideologically different? Am I honest and above board in my financial dealings with others?
These questions matter because consciously or unconsciously, like it or not, each individual affects the functioning of the group or organization in some way, shape or form. When an individual is out of balance, their dynamic impacts the organization (not unlike an unhealthy cancerous cell in our physical body). And when many people are out of balance, we all know where that can lead. The symptoms are familiar: issues related to performance, morale, absenteeism, presenteeism and the like, but the cause is always the same: an undermining of the overall health and well-being of the organization. Dysfunction.
Business as usual
Unfortunately, this dysfunction does not always appear as a red flag. Many individuals and organizations view dysfunction as 'business as usual'. For some, functioning poorly is a simple reality of the workplace. For me, dysfunction is a sign that all is not well. Dysfunction is a tug on the collective sleeve. It is asking, “how can I contribute to the restructuring of the workplace (or my part of the workplace) to preserve the positive humanity and ensure quality of life for everyone?"
- Have you ever seen any of these in a management training manual: loving people, compassion, tolerance, selfless giving, forgiving, self-nurturing, contributing to the community, giving meaning to people’s lives?
- Do fear, suspicion and survival overtly or covertly drive many of your relationships at work?
- Do you experience any of these during your workday: passion, understanding, honesty, integrity, kindness, compassion, empathy, humility, dignity, respect, love? If so, with whom?
- Do you or your leaders ever ask: Who are we? Why do we exist? What is our defining character? What is our vision? How do we express this vision? Who is our customer? How do we market and sell our products and services most effectively? How do we exceed our customer’s expectations? How do we care for our people? How do we integrate humanistic practices with sound business functioning? How do we treat others with respect, dignity and love? How can we support the well-being of our employees? How do we adapt to new workplace demands? How do we manifest institutional moral responsibility? How can we shift from competition to cooperation? How can our values reflect responsibility for society and the environment?
Answering this question requires an environment in which reflection, self-discovery, interpersonal growth, well-being and continuous learning are as much a part of the workplace as are the coffee, cubicles and computers.
No one is an island
There are those who believe that each of us is an island, a free agent whose sole purpose is to maintain our individuality, our place in the sun, our ‘space’. But that is to deny our inter-connectedness. If we choose to feel separate and independent from one another, we end up looking for excuses (certainly not reasons) to support our choice and to justify our wanting to exist in isolation from those around us. Interconnectedness and community are as important in the workplace as they are anywhere else - perhaps even more so, given the state of fear, anxiety, stress, ambiguity, inhumanity, depression and chaos that characterize many organizations. That’s why a focus on how we conduct ourselves at work would go a long way towards enhancing its quality, energy and culture.
So ‘spirituality’ - the understanding of the importance of this interconnectedness - has its place in the workplace. Indeed without it, we risk leaving our authentic self, the one with care, compassion and love for others - at the door when we walk into the office and falling into the trap of functioning in a disconnected, robotic way because we are ‘at work’. But consciously or unconsciously, this compartmentalizing dehumanizes us and leads us to discount the ‘whole’ of people's humanity.
Just because we’re ‘at work’ doesn’t mean we stop being who we are. So perhaps a conscious focus on the workplace as a place of community, understanding, empathy and compassion for the human experience - yours and mine - can transform many centers of dysfunctions into places where humanity rules the day.