12 Oct 1999  Research & Ideas

Spirit at Work: The Search for Deeper
Meaning in the Workplace

A host of organizations — among them Lucent Technologies, the Boeing Company, and Southwest Airlines — have recently begun to ponder such intangibles in an effort to attract and maintain a motivated, performance-boosting workforce. Books about the "ensoulment" of corporate life have been hitting best-seller lists lately, and conferences on spirituality and business have been springing up all over the United States and Canada. Web sites dedicated to such topics now pepper the Internet. Even the World Economic Forum devoted a session at its February meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to "spiritual anchors for the new millennium." Clearly, something of a nonmaterial nature is stirring in the corporate temple.

But questions abound. Just what does it mean to bring spirituality into the workplace? Is this an appropriate way to help people feel more stimulated by their jobs? Is it a fad that amounts to little more than sensitivity training in New Age clothing, or does it reflect something more profound about the way we are beginning to conceive of and relate to work? In the following pages six HBS alumni who are exploring the intersection of work and spirituality and three HBS faculty members with various perspectives on the issue provide some insights on these questions.

A Sense of Purpose

photo of Prof. William McLennan, Jr.

"I see the movement to incorporate more of a spiritual feeling in business as a reflection of people's age-old need to find meaning in what they're doing," says Michael Beer, the School's Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration and an expert on organizational behavior. "Quite simply, without a sense of purpose, we become alienated from our work and find it harder to motivate ourselves." Senior Lecturer William ("Scotty") McLennan, Jr., who teaches the MBA elective The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature, adds, "What we're seeing is an increasingly felt need for people to integrate the spiritual dimension of their lives into what they do for most of the day. People are starting to realize that if they're going to spend a good part of their lives in the office, they'd like that time to be spiritually as well as materially rewarding."

Leading experts on the topic, including Peter B. Vaill (MBA '60, DBA '64), a professor at the University of St. Thomas business school in Minneapolis, agree that a hunger to nourish the spirit indeed seems to be driving the movement to find greater meaning in work. In his book Spirited Leading and Learning, Vaill describes many of the economic and cultural stresses he believes have spurred this trend, among them the destabilizing of the corporation as a lifelong employer due to global competition and downsizing; rapid turnover of executives and employees; growing concern about the environment; and the crumbling of institutions such as schools and the family. "We're searching for new ways of grounding to sustain us through very turbulent times," he observes.

Richard C. Whiteley (MBA '68), a management consultant and author who is writing a book titled "ReSpiriting Work," notes, "Another important factor is the aging of the American population. The baby boomers are coming into their fifties, which is a natural time to start reassessing one's life and asking the big questions like 'Why am I here?' Coupled with this, you have many people looking for a renewed sense of community. They're searching for a sense of belonging."

The "S" Word

For many people, work and spirituality call for such different -and sometimes contradictory-mindsets that the idea of melding the two seems almost absurd. Moreover, in a culture that counts religious pluralism and the separation of church and state among its most hallowed principles, integrating the two makes some people understandably nervous. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., the School's John Shad Professor of Business Ethics, sums it up this way: "I wouldn't want a Fortune 500 company bringing me religion."

Echoes Vaill: "Talking about spirituality in the business context feels risky and awkward, and people tend to question the motivation behind it." Still, companies around the country are managing to pick their way through such uncomfortable territory in an effort to respond to their employees' deeper yearnings. While spirituality is a highly individual and personal matter, managers and employees alike seem to find common themes emerging when they begin thinking in terms of what it means to create deeper meaning in the workplace.

"Rather than defining spirituality for people," says Whiteley, "I ask them to think of a time, be it at work, volunteering, playing on a sports team, whatever, when they were totally absorbed, when everything was cooking for them. They generally say things like 'I felt incredibly motivated. I felt productive. I had no sense of time. I had fun.' That, to me, is beginning to articulate what spirituality, in terms of self-engagement and fulfillment, is all about."

Jennifer F. Lawrence (MBA '87), a marketing consultant and professor at Boston University, says, "Spirituality should not be confused with 'religion.' To me, spirituality is simply having a sense of inner calm and a willingness to reflect carefully on yourself and the world around you. Integrating spirituality into the workplace means creating a place where it's all right for people to bring their whole selves, with all their talents and complex emotions; where there's enough safety so that people can speak the truth openly at meetings, rather than secretly in the hallway afterward; where there's an elevated sense of integrity. These ideas are not new, and may even seem obvious, but it's amazing how infrequently they are applied in the corporate environment and how harmful their absence can be."

Bringing Soul to Work

Many organizations have begun to tend to the needs of the spirit by hiring holistic consultants who offer classes and seminars on topics such as yoga and meditation, improving communications, creating more balance between work and home life, and expressing oneself using theater exercises. At Coopers & Lybrand and Goldman Sachs, consultant Benjamin Zander, for example, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, has used music and singing to help staffers think in unconventional ways. Poet David Whyte brings poetry to corporations such as Merck and Procter & Gamble to stir creativity by helping employees bridge their analytical and artistic sides. Such efforts are designed to reach employees at a deeper level. By engaging more of workers' total selves, organizations hope to develop staff who are more satisfied, productive, and innovative.

Indeed, the manifestations of spirituality in business are as varied as the individuals who promote such efforts. As executive director of Florida's aquarium project in Tampa from 1987 to 1993, for example,

James M. Stuart (MBA '69) used spiritual practices to lead some 150 consultants and employees in the building of the aquarium against almost impossible financial odds. "I started the early design meetings with a nondenominational prayer," says Stuart, an Episcopalian who also draws on the tenets of a number of world religions in his own spiritual practice. "It made me exceptionally nervous, because I thought I was being presumptuous. But I truly felt that we were building a kind of 'nature church' celebrating Creation and that this was, in a way, sacred work. People told me that because I wasn't pushy about it they came to see this opening prayer as a point of distinction for the group, something special."

Stuart also drew on principles he considers to be spiritually based to help him handle the sometimes overwhelming challenges he faced as a managerial leader. "I tried my best to check my ego at the door," he says. "I avoided giving ultimatums or drawing lines in the sand, the kind of petty, superficial responses that really only create enemies. If someone blew up at me, instead of firing him, I'd say, 'Let's work together.' I deferred to the wisdom of my team and the larger forces that govern us all. It was amazing how much unity all that created and how it allowed us to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems."

Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa (MBA '69) — who was known as Arthur S. Warshaw while at HBS and is now an American Sikh — has helped weave spirituality into the very fiber of Khalsa International Industries, a Sikh-founded, $100-million group of service and product companies (including Sun & Son, Inc., a national Lotus Notes-based computer consulting firm specializing in e-commerce; Akal Security Company; and natural food enterprises such as the Yogi Tea Company), for which he serves as executive vice president. "Our goal is to provide products and services that heal and uplift humanity while also generating healthy profits," he says. The Sikh lifestyle encourages daily yoga, meditation, and prayer; religious tolerance; and "recognizing the divine in every person" — all of which translate into business practice in a variety of ways, Khalsa says.

"First of all, the roughly 15 percent of the staff who are Sikhs come to the office centered and focused after our morning spiritual practice, which gives us the clarity to make better decisions," he explains. "Second, valuing others means we are slow on the firing trigger. We make every effort to help our employees succeed and achieve excellence. And we have an attitude of gratefulness." He adds: "It's not necessarily any easier to run a company based on spiritual principles, but it certainly is fulfilling."

Same Product, New Package?

Some experts maintain that the spirituality movement in business is not necessarily espousing anything new. "It's really no different from efforts that have been going on for decades to create organizations that are more than moneymaking instruments," contends Michael Beer. "We had corporate sensitivity training in the 1950s, for example, which was all about getting people to communicate better and express their feelings. We've had the total quality movement and the move toward creating teams and the high-commitment workplace. I see what's going on today as simply a reiteration of these previous trends."

Still, others feel that the growing attention to the deeper meaning of work is part of a significant change occurring in the way work is being perceived and structured. As Peter Vaill notes, social and economic conditions in recent years have changed dramatically and altered the way individuals view the role of work in their lives. And Richard Whiteley observes that corporations, too, are seeing things differently.

"Previous activities that have been intended to create organizational vision and purpose have indeed formed the foundation for what's happening today," says Whiteley. "But now we're seeing the recognition that a more purposeful incorporation of female-associated qualities-nurturing, relational skills, intuition-is necessary in order to make a company work. If you look at the trend toward alliances, third-party relationships, partnerships, outsourcing-all of this is requiring that we move from 'commanding' to 'cooperating.'"

Tending to the organizational spirit may necessitate more individual soul-searching on the part of managerial leaders, as well. "Companies that want to be great from here on in are going to have to become intensely values-based," argues Jim Stuart. "Leaders are going to have to inspire a strong sense of mission and purpose that goes beyond salary and profits." Vaill agrees, adding, "Where is that inspiration going to come from? I contend that executives themselves will need a spiritual program of some kind."

Toward that end, Alonzo L. McDonald, Jr. (MBA '56), former head of McKinsey & Company worldwide and president of The Bendix Corporation and now chairman and CEO of Avenir, a private investment group, became founding chairman of the Trinity Forum in 1991. An "academy without walls," the Trinity Forum regularly gathers business leaders for intensive discussions of the spiritual dimensions of leadership and how their personal beliefs govern their lives and positively influence the roles they play in society. Sessions use relevant excerpts from religious and classical literature as a springboard for dialogue.

"We think top secular leaders should be following a higher calling than simply serving themselves or their institutional aims," McDonald says. "The more they strengthen the spiritual dimension in their own lives, the more they'll enrich their own quality of life and their relationships with family, friends, and employees."

Jim Stuart has even gone so far as to help design a "Leadership Circle," an intensive program for CEOs scheduled to debut this summer in New Mexico that will integrate current management theory with spiritual teachings from the world's ancient traditions. "The basic idea for the program," says Stuart, "is to help develop the kind of leader who understands that his or her primary role is to enable others' greatness, not to be served. This kind of leader is one who truly listens, who builds a safe space where employees can tell the truth, and who inspires a sense of belonging in others."

The result of such initiatives, say some experts, can be a happier, more productive cadre of employees — and, with that, a healthier bottom line. But beyond the potential for profit, the longer-lasting outcome of the move to find deeper meaning in the workplace could be more satisfying careers for us all.

Each May, at the end of his Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature course, Scotty McLennan goes one step further. "I ask students to think about the lesson of Tolstoy's character Iván Ilych, who realizes that what he has been missing is love," McLennan says. "I acknowledge that while it may seem inappropriate to talk about such things in an HBS classroom, they should remember that people on their deathbeds often say the only thing that mattered about their lives was the amount of love they'd given and received. I think the move toward integrating spirituality and work is also fundamentally about how to bring more love into our lives." That may be a bottom line worth meditating on.

Peter B. Vaill

Peter B. Vaill (MBA '60, DBA '64) "My HBS classmates would probably remember me as the guy who worried more about the philosophical issues of the cases than whether we could get market share up another tenth of a percent," Peter Vaill laughs. His interest in the people side of business led him to become one of the pioneers in the "organizational excellence" movement in the early 1970s. Cited in some circles as one of the country's top ten organizational development specialists, Vaill is lately known for his ideas on what he's termed "permanent white water" -the turbulent social and organizational conditions that managerial leaders face today. Now he is helping to lead the dialogue on the "respiriting" of the workplace. "Divorces, job changes, and the cold wind of personal mortality blowing on my neck have all fed into my interest in issues of personal meaning in relationship to work," Vaill notes.

photo courtesy Peter Vaill

Richard C. Whitely

Richard C. Whiteley (MBA '68) "About twenty years ago the death of my parents and a divorce, in rapid succession, set me on a journey to answer the question, Who am I?" says Richard Whiteley. "I discovered that my life purpose is to bring spirit back into business through my writing, speaking, and consulting and to keep working on my own personal growth." An internationally acclaimed speaker and author of the award-winning, best-selling books The Customer-Driven Company and Customer-Centered Growth, Whiteley's recent writing explores "how to free the individual so that when people come to work, all parts of them show up-not just their hands or their head but their heart, spirit, and soul." "Everyone has something unique, some outstanding quality that is special," he says. "It's part of the leader's job to discover the genius in each employee and create an environment in which that can flourish."

photo by Rick Friedman

Jennifer Faith Lawrence (MBA '87) "At the so-called peak of my career I had a fancy title, lots of people reporting to me, a big office, lots of money-and I was totally miserable," says Jennifer Lawrence, a savvy executive who was named head of marketing for the Rockport Company shoe firm at age 32. "I realized I didn't want to be living on an airplane and treating people as though my needs were more important than theirs. I wanted to change my life," she says. After a period of reflection and working with a career counselor, she was invited to guest lecture at Boston University. "I knew I was meant to teach," says Lawrence, who is now a marketing professor at BU. She also consults to clients with "knotty, interesting marketing problems." Her dream? "To open a complete coaching getaway, called Renewal Lodge, where people can find the best parts of themselves again."

photo by Sarah Putnam

James M. Stuart

James M. Stuart (MBA '69) In the late 1800s, Jim Stuart's great-grandfather founded the Quaker Oats Company with "integrity" and "trustworthy" as part of its motto. Today, those words are more than a marketing strategy for the fourth-generation Stuart-they have come to form the core of his life quest. "The real question that has fascinated me is, How do you develop those two values within an organization at the end of the twentieth century?" says Stuart, who served in various managerial capacities for Quaker Oats from 1969 to 1985. "I was known as 'the Prussian General' by my HBS friends because I was a big, powerful, fearless guy," he recalls. "I always commanded from the head of the table, shouting, 'This is not a democracy!' Then a series of personal tragedies and professional smashings made me seriously reassess my life and mature spiritually. I'm much gentler and happier now." Stuart teaches marketing at the University of South Florida.

photo courtesy James Stuart

Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa

Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa (MBA '69) Classmates may remember Khalsa as Arthur S. Warshaw, MIT graduate and Baker Scholar. "No one is more surprised than I when I look in the mirror," he remarks on his inner and outer transformation. Khalsa embraced the Sikh faith, which originated in India 550 years ago, after meeting Yogi Bhajan, the spiritual leader who brought Sikhism to the West in 1969. "Eleven years ago, I began to spend time with Sikhs in California and to practice their lifestyle, and I eventually made the leap to wearing the white garments that remind us of our commitment to living our spirituality daily," he says. The former real-estate developer and president of Time-Life Television is now CEO of Sun & Son, a computer consulting firm devoted to enabling 21st-century businesses to communicate and share information in new ways. "I believe such technologies will lead to ever-increasing global understanding and trust - truly spiritual principles," Khalsa says.

photo courtesy Avtar Hari Singh Khalsa

Alonzon L. McDonald, Jr.

Alonzo L. McDonald, Jr. (MBA '56) Al McDonald has excelled at leadership in the worlds of business, government, and education. A former top executive at McKinsey and Bendix, between 1977 and 1981 McDonald was an ambassador, an assistant to President Jimmy Carter, and a White House staff director. "I had a view of the pinnacle of earthly power," he says, "and yet all I could see was frustration. I began to realize there's a greater power at work in society than we humans possess even in our most influential posts. So I started thinking, reading, and trying to discover for myself the deeper meaning of life and what my Creator wants for me." Today, McDonald spends much of his time supporting various ministry activities and participating in discussions at the Trinity Forum, an institute he cofounded to prompt spiritual dialogue among secular leaders. "I've always been a hard-nosed business guy," he says. "I'm sure lots of my old friends come to the Trinity Forum just to see what's come over me!"

photo courtesy Alonzo L. McDonald, Jr.

From the Harvard Business School Bulletin, April 1999.