The Soul at Work

A variety of fairly recent developments have elevated the conversation about workplace values to a place of prominence in America's business schools: 1) concerns about coercion in the workplace that might force a uniformity of belief in deeper, spiritual, and religious beliefs; 2) the shift in conversations about First Amendment provisions from a conversation about freedom for religion in the public domain to a conversation free from religion; 3) growing cultural incivility, which has made dialogue difficult, if not impossible; and 4) a plurality of religious and spiritual perspectives. In that increasingly complex environment the conversation about workplace values has an inoffensive, vanilla character that skirts the more hotly contested issues in the modern workplace.

Of course, the emphasis on values clarification lies more deeply than this. The Enlightenment, for example, celebrated the innate and self-evident nature of certain values, many of which are enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

What Enlightenment figures failed to acknowledge, however, was the degree to which their assumptions about human nature and morality were shaped by religious categories they inherited from Christianity and Judaism. Nor could they have anticipated the persistence and complexity of global religious diversity. The occasion for the long-anticipated death of God in the West has come and gone; and God is more alive now than ever before.

The recent emphasis on workplace spirituality also underlines the fact that religious and spiritual assumptions are not just one more set of values among others, but for many ground and inform the values that shape workplace behavior. And therein lies the problem: The failure to acknowledge this deeper grounding does not avoid coercion and preserve freedom. It forces everyone to subscribe to an artificial norm that no one holds as such. It imposes a false sense of intimacy on the workplace that is deeply, albeit secretly, at odds with the values held by individual employees. And it is corrosive of individual religious beliefs, forcing employees to sublimate their religious values in favor of an alternative workplace "religion."

In the modern, industrial world, conventional wisdom held that, at most, organizations could acknowledge that their employees might have spiritual convictions that shaped the way that they performed in the workplace. But by and large, leaders breathed a sigh of relief, of course, if those convictions never surfaced in an explicit fashion.

In a post-modern and globalized context, it no longer makes sense to hope that everyone subscribes to the same organizational or cultural creed. What is needed instead are candid conversations about the way in which organizational, enacted, expressed, and individual values intersect with the diverse spiritual commitments of today's workforce.

This doesn't necessitate uniformity of belief. It does offer the possibility of lively engagement and an integration of the values we endorse with our work by tying them more deeply to our deepest impulses, values, and experiences.

That's a very different work world from the one that prevailed thirty years ago and which still exists today in scattered pockets of the corporate world. When my wife began her first career in advertising, the firm where she worked required its employees to read the company manifesto. Essentially that manifesto insisted that you give the company everything, sacrificing soul, family, and private life in the name of achieving the firm's goals.

You were also told in no uncertain terms that if you were not prepared to make those sacrifices you would not survive. The company's manifesto made that point forcefully, featuring stories of sacrifice by senior partners who had done just that. And the net result was just the kind of corporate snake pit that made the narrative for TV's "Mad Men." The irony, of course, was that in the name of avoiding conversation about religion the corporation functioned as both God and religion—albeit a bit more like Moloch than anything else.

All of this makes for a fairly uneven workplace today, in which both the old models, and its value-oriented substitute thrive alongside a handful of new models that have discovered how to make space for spiritual engagement without dictating its shape. Some of them are even churches.

The key (whatever the state of things in your work place) is, as always, within:

Forge your own connections with your work that arise out of your deepest spiritual commitments.

If you can't find those connections, find other work as soon as possible, or look for a place where you can connect with the work you do, even if it is an avocation or hobby.

If there is some element of your work that connects more deeply with your spiritual values than other dimensions of it, focus on those as much as possible. No job is a perfect vehicle for God's deepest calling in your life and some dimensions of a job simply "come with the territory." But in many cases they need not dominate unless you allow them to do that.

Finally, remember that no job is worthy of claiming the whole of your life and spiritual energy. The best of jobs remains only a place to learn how to draw closer to God in everything that we do. If you don't learn that sooner, rather than later, you will learn it when illness or retirement rob you the opportunity to go on working.