Can Religion and Business Learn From Each Other?

Do religion and business have anything to say to each other? HBS senior research fellow Laura Nash believes they do.
by Martha Lagace

Mention the words religion and business in one breath, and chances are good that someone will take offense. It's a common conviction within most Western societies that the two do not and should not be mixed—ever.

Yet when Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan began to investigate this controversial arena, they found a lot of dissatisfaction with the status quo, as well as tension and confusion, among both executives and clergy.

On the executive side, says Nash, "Just across the board, interviewees would be saying, 'This is a life as a business leader that is very lonely. It requires many masks and many responsibilities that aren't from the same person I am at home and in my church on Sunday, and I don't know how to navigate that transition.'"

Business is made up of many relationships and actions that represent every human emotion possible and every human motivation.
— Laura Nash

Mainstream churches, meanwhile, were not benefiting from the distanced relationship, and indeed were ceding ground to secular spirituality and its offshoots from New Age crystals to personal empowerment. How to bridge the Sunday-Monday disconnect?

Nash, an HBS senior research fellow, and McLennan, the dean for religious life at Stanford University and a former senior lecturer at HBS, describe the hurdles as well as a practical framework to overcome them in their new book, Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life.

"This is one of the great uncharted areas that is part of most people's lives, and yet we haven't prepared managers and the business community to think about this very strongly," Nash says.

"What we were very concerned about with the book is not to set out a blueprint for solving this, because we don't think there is a blueprint. What there is is a very deep need for self-reflection and community reflection."

Nash expanded on these views in an interview with HBS Working Knowledge senior editor Martha Lagace; the following is an excerpt from that interview.

Lagace: What is an example of a business issue that someone could start to discuss with his or her theologian?

Nash: Let me back up and give you an example of the kind of thing that might cause them to say, "My religion is of relevance here." But then whether they should talk directly with their theologian is an open question.

Say you are in a negotiation for a large contract. If you get the contract, the company's going to grow quite a bit. But you've had to put a lot of resources into the construction of this deal. And it's risky, very risky. The terms of that deal begin to look unethical to you from any number of standpoints—layoffs; cost-cutting to the point where you know you're going to stretch your work force very, very thin; quality tradeoffs that may mean that you're not going to be delivering on what you say, and there may even be a safety factor. Honesty inside the marketplace in terms of how you're representing yourself and what you can deliver.

All these things are typical stresses in the business environment.

Where would religion fit in there? Well, religion could fit in a number of ways. One is, first of all, the personal perspective, that sacred self: "I am more than the deal." It's really easy to forget that you are something more than the deal when you get in these high-stress situations.

Catalytic exercises such as meditation or prayer or reading a sacred text [could] pull them out enough to keep that perspective. When they keep that perspective, they also start to keep their heads and get creative in the way they structure the deal. It may give them courage to kick back. You know, if people are fearful, for example, they can get very abusive; they can get very destructive. That's not always the best way to approach deal making. This whole thing of win-win situations: if you're really hating the other person, it tends to escalate and deals break down that way. Greed kicks in; whereas if your religion is from an ethic of love—which sounds so squishy—in fact it can be the anchor for good business practices.

So religion in that case, in the catalytic and foundational area, can really begin to have a deep effect both on the emotions in a business deal and on the ethics. Business people think in terms of problem solving and practical solutions, so we're asking a lot here because doers are not usually reflectors. And yet they find the need for reflection.

What can religion learn from business?

I think there's a lot of room for cross-learning here. One of the things I think the religious community can learn from the business community is that the realm of business is not as simple as it tends to think it is, that capitalism is not this monolithic thing called The Market that exploits and tricks people. And that business is made up of many relationships and actions that represent every human emotion possible and every human motivation.

It's very hard if you're a religious professional who's gone to a seminary that's never had a course on anything except global capitalism at the most abstract level, and hostile level. And you've never met these people and you've never visited their work sites or met businesspeople except in your territory, where the masks are on. I think we feel sympathetic with a level of not knowing in the religious community, but you can't be a good critic unless you understand. So the first thing is they could learn about the complexities of the actual business world, and its human aspects.

Another thing that religious communities have not grappled with as well are the responsibilities of management.

Churches are not managed terribly well. Employee practices are notoriously discriminatory or conflict-avoiding [in a way] that can be very stressful on an employee. Businesspeople tend not to run away from those conflicts as quickly. They tend to be peacekeepers but not in a way that avoids conflict, whereas clergy tend to be peacekeepers in ways that repress conflict.

One of the things we found when we researched religion and the business world was clergy saying, "Well, we're managers, too, and we don't do any better at bringing our faith to management. It's the part of our job we hate the most."

I think there's a lot of education that could go on from the business world to the churches in terms of "You know, this isn't as scary as it looks."

There are some hard decisions that have to be made. One is just understanding that the range of problems is much more complex. Second is that the responsibility of management is something that can be addressed, rather than swept under the carpet. And the third thing that religious professionals can learn is a kind of pragmatic problem solving. Our sense was, you really need both of these voices; it's not that you want to turn every pastor into a businessperson. But there is an alternative world.

One of the things we found out is if you just put out a kind of road map for the two world views, they were at such odds with each other—business and the church—that you can see why the stereotypes start up and the inability to bring any kind of sense of support to faith and work occurs. You had doers versus thinkers. You had the business community feeling [that] business is a series of actions, and the religious community thinking it's The Market. It had a feeling of faith being a very positive and constructive building force, economically constructive among the business community; and you had it being a "stand with the poor" among the religious community.

Church on Sunday, Work on Monday  

Well, both views are important, we do need to stand with the poor; but if you can't imagine any kind of constructive action by the wealthy, it kind of leaves successful businesspeople out of the religious picture.

We call these "tripping points." They just really got in the way of any kind of joint communication in this area. First of all, [the lack of communication] marginalizes the churches in a very real way. People are voting with their feet and not attending mainstream churches much, although now after the World Trade Center events [it has changed], but it's not going up because "It's an important part of my ordinary life."

The second reason we think it's so important to get these two groups together is that business as usual does have a number of moral problems that are very stressful to deal with. It needs mutual learning. It needs multiple perspectives.

There's a third reason that popped up in the 90s: globalization. There now is an awareness that if you are in any kind of a global corporation, you'll be dealing with multiple religious world views somewhere under the surface. A lot of times they're very obvious, but a lot of times they're just slightly under the surface. And there's a kind of humility in the face of "Gosh, I don't know anything about Islam, I don't know anything about Buddhism, what is religious conflict in India going to have to do with my factory?" There's a lot of curiosity to know this foundational religious information better than we have in the past.

How do you bridge the two realms of religion and business?

Two reactions seem to be very typical right now when people ask me about this research. The first reaction is very cynical, kind of "You've got to be kidding me, why would you even care about this? Religion is divisive, why would you do that?"

My answer to that is, "If you have any kind of personal spirituality or faith, think to a moment in your life, preferably your professional life or even your private life, where you felt some deep awareness of that faith operating, a punctuated moment of transcendence where you felt, 'I feel the need for God in the workplace,' or 'God is working.'" I think the World Trade Center for many people was a moment like that, where suddenly the ultimate concern [was] an awareness of life, and it became suddenly so monumentally important to people that they began to feel a connection to their faith as well.

When you think of those kinds of moments, and you think of the emotions and the ethics and the motivations you feel during those moments, if you were to write down all the things that occur during those moments, and then asked yourself how often these things occur in your business life, and would they improve the way you manage or not, most people would say, "Don't occur very often, don't know if they would improve it, haven't tested it out."

That's why we wrote the book: to say, "Wait a minute, this is not inevitable, and this is a resource that's very strong and very important to our society."

So the first reaction [to our research] is, you know, this incredulity. And yet as soon as you point things out like that, it is amazing how many people have some kind of closet interest that they're afraid to express.

I would never want to be misunderstood here. I do not like people superficially wearing their religion on their sleeve, or beating up other people with their religion. Scotty is Unitarian, which is a very eclectic kind of religion; neither of us wants to beat people up with religion. So I wouldn't want to be misunderstood, but nonetheless to say, "This is a very important part of people's lives. Don't underestimate it. And why not cultivate it rather than suppress it?" But cultivate it in the appropriate arena, or you will trip it up.

There is truly a need for self-challenge. There is a sense that we must improve the fundamental actions of business in a global setting at the moment. Capitalism looks like it has won the day, but if it suffers from some kind of moral bankruptcy, it isn't going to last.

There are so many questions around the world as to whether we are taking on the responsibilities of economic leadership in a proper way. It takes great strength to sort that world out, and religious faith is one of those sources of strength. It's also a source of conscience. And for those reasons it's important to put a critical eye on that area of your thinking.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.