Workplace Spirituality


N.R. Aravamudhan
Senior Faculty
Suverna International Institute of Management Studies

Juxtaposing the two words "workplace" and "spirituality" may sound paradoxical. Doesn't it? May even sound tad bit far-fetched idea? Toss the words around in your head. You may still wonder if it is not quite preposterous to think of "workplace" and "spirituality" in the same breath. You may wring your hand in exasperation, wondering when capitalism entered in to wedlock with spirituality .Isn't the marriage doomed from the word go. Aren't "spirituality" and "business" a two different twain that shall never meet? Imagine a workplace, steeped in conflicts, apathy, petty politicking, "dog-eat-dog" spirit, disenchantment ,strife ,"me-first" mentality, embracing spirituality big time. Aren't such places a complete antithesis to spirituality? Fancy a CEO, who is hard-nosed, no-nonsense person and has a "i-cannot-see-beyaond-the bottomline"attitude trying to attain corporate nirvana. A sheer anachronism, you may wonder? Naysayers (and there is a quite few of them) may baulk at the idea, arguing that "good old" capitalism always run contrary to the spirituality. Spirituality was rarely accorded a pride of place in the western place. The spiritual life was treated as just another activity that was crammed in to stolen time. For their part, employees also looked upon their workplace as completely de-humanized. Workplaces were viewed as a place to just earn their bread and butter. Not a place to nourish your soul. They never felt the place as their own. Clearly, the workplaces have robbed the employees of all the joy and pleasure of bringing their soul, body, and spirit in a place where they spend a better part of their life. Little wonder, people go through the motions of doing their job more mechanically sans passion, commitment, and a killer drive. One potential fall out is that in such a highly de-humanized settings, the spirit doesn't manifest itself freely. It is shut down. It cannot express itself freely. Employees are prone to commit varying degrees of professional infractions. They don't feel the need to think out-of-the-box. Creative solutions to very complex problems go unresolved. Creativity, cornerstone of any business could be a catastrophe. On the top of it all, there is a mounting pressure to deliver. A heightened expectation to live up to. Put it all together, you have employees wilting under the pressure of stress levels hitherto unknown. Unless the workplace becomes hugely sanitized and highly humanized, the business will find it difficult to re-invent itself.

This is a grim reality which the companies are fully seized of. Employers are fully alive to the fact that employees look forward to more things in life than just big fat salary. Money as the single most motivator is a thing of the past. At another level, work places were grappling with the problem of more skeletons tumbling out and prisisng open the ugly underbelly of businesses. Financial improprieties of Enron,Worldcom,Arthur Anderson and the resultant public shaming and widespread consternation, has proved that there is a spiritual bankruptcy in workplaces. Reports of Nikes sweetshop, squalid work conditions, and a measly wages paid to overseas workers came in for widespread criticism many years ago. The damning revelation saw its earnings tumble by 27%.Seen in this context, upholding ethical behavior, providing good governance, treating the stake holders in a caring and impartial manner, and being a responsible corporate citizen has become the imperatives of time.

Back home, Companies like Godrej, Vardhaman group, Eeicher, Indian Oil Corporation, and Birla group have demonstrated their commitment to providing good corporate governance and making the society a better place to live in. Two companies-Wipro and Infosy have demonstrated to the world at large that a good corporate governance practices can put the business on high pedestal .Both the companies have consistently taken a long, hard, but ethical route to achieve greatness. Mr.N.R.Narayanamurthy, poster boy of good corporate governance practices has emerged as a high priest of corporate India. Good corporate governance practices, coupled with ethics and demonstrable spiritual leadership have catapulted Infosys into a exclusive billion dollar group. In this day and age where there is a bewildering range of product choices before consumers, companies which have committed themselves to becoming a responsible corporate citizen have found great favor with consumers in a big way. The trend report discovered that 75% of the consumers interviewed say they are more likely to gravitate towards brands associated with a good cause if price and quality being the same In India, Birlas, Godrej, and Tata's have demonstrated high level of social consciousness. Much as one may deny, the fact is business and spirituality are highly compatible and offers tremendous benefit to the corporates. Poll conducted by KRC research for spirituality in2003 found that 6 out of 10 people say workplaces would benefit immensely if there is an abundant expression of spirit in workplaces. A study done by Mckinsey in Australia found the productivity perking up and turnover reduced, when the company incorporated spiritual tools in programmes conducted for the employees. A growing number of companies are aware of the inherent benefits of helping the employees open up their expression of spirit, the whole being, and complete life in the workplace. Today, businesses understand what spirituality in the workplace means for employees .As a result, the nature of workplace is undergoing a profound evolution. Increasingly, Workplaces are moving from being a place of survival-place where they earn the bread and butter-to a place of livelihood. The livelihood in this context means the place where employees are fully alive and live. When you are there, fully alive, the spirit can unleash itself seamlessly.

Before elaborating further on spirituality in the work place, it is quite important to know what it exactly means, its genesis, and the obvious triggers helping the spiritual movement to take a firm root in the corporate jungle.

What is spirituality in workplace?

It is quite difficult to define the term "spirituality in workplace spirituality precisely. It is like an empty container where everyone wants to fill it up to a level one desire. In effect, spirituality in workplace means different things to different people. Depending on their interest, interpretation, and discipline, scholars may define spirituality at workplaces as living the values such as integrity, probity, passion, co-operation, ethics, commitment, loyalty,   and tolerance at the workplace. For some scholars, workplace spirituality is all about employees who understand themselves as spiritual entities whose soul needs nourishment at work. For a few, it is all about defining your life purpose, values and principles, expressing it and demonstrating it to yourself and to others. Some may see spirituality in workplace as an attitude. A way of life. But the dominant view seems to be a "spirit of connectedness" and an eternal quest of employees for a search of depth of meaning, breadth of significant experience and a greater sense of life purpose to navigate through the shifting sands of materialistic world.

It is quite natural to use the word spirituality and religion synonymously. But spirituality in the workplace is not same as religion. There is a sharp underlying differences between both .While religion is too narrow, denominational, dogmatic, exclusive, spirituality is too broad, non-denominational, inclusive and less encumbered with ideological baggage of the religion .There can be a great deal of connectedness ,spiritedness, engagement and understanding among the employees at workplace without the feeling of religious convictions being thrust down their throat.

Genesis of spirituality in workplace-how it all started?

Workplace spirituality is no new phenomenon. It existed in ancient times also. Infact; there is a Hebrew word "avadah" which includes among other things, work and love. References abound in kautilyas Arthasastra about spiritual practices embraced by the kings of yore in India. Arthasastra highlights the intellectual inputs and advice sought by kings from the raja guru, who in turn referred to scriptures, which was based on dharma. Little wonder, the entire kingdom was dharmic.and the rajgurus enjoyed pre-eminent position in many famed kingdoms .Bagavad gita is another unceasing fount of knowledge of spiritual practices which are relevant in our contemporary society even today. Business in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were established and run on loving and Spiritual principles.

For instance, Cadbury founded by Quaker was, run on loving principles. But some where along the twentieth century, business and spirituality became Incompatible. In twentieth century, business became more obsessed with left-brain perspectives such as strategic planning, performance management, reasoning, analytiacal thinking, total quality management, financial results, and profits. Left-brain perspectives are considered to be too dispassionate and mind numbingly cold. Interestingly; men are more inclined towards left-brain thinking. Historically, corporate landscapes were considered to be the pocket borough of men. Hence left-brain ideas got deeply entrenched in corporate culture. Compassion, Spirituality, love, empathy is truly the right –brain perspectives associated with women. Now that the workplace is witnessing a huge influx of women, right brain thinking is finding its way in to testosterone-driven corporate space. Thus spirituality in the work place gained greater currency.

What is driving spirituality in the workplace?

World over, businesses are on the cusp of major transformation. The catalyst that is hastening this pace of transformation are-fear psychosis and emergence of spirituality. In the workplace. In an increasingly connected globalized business environment, employees find themselves more vulnerable and uncertain. The old shibboleths like "job-for-life" "sworn-to-my-employer –for-life" are considered irrelevant and moth-eaten. Corporate downsizing, lay-offs, outsourcing, business re-engineering efforts have become a commonplace in the lexicon of business today. An employee finds his /her job's shelf -life being cut short too mercilessly. The business resorts to downsizing to help itself get out of the financial abyss it has slipped in to. Downsizing may cut the excessive flab. It helps the business to become lean and devilishly mean. At least that is the sentiment the employees share about the downsizing. Downsizing is more painful to those of the employees who are retained by the management. They have to redouble their efforts to produce more with less .Employees feel frustrated and disenchanted .Downsizing may work in the short-term. Bottom-line figures may sport a black color once again, but leaves employees red in their face. In the long-term, down-sizing will have a calamitous impact on the level of employee's engagement. Connectedness and morale. Employee loyalty vanishes in to thin air.

Lay-off can also have a negative fall out for its employees. Companies normally lay-off

People when it hits the financial rough patches and hire people as things start looking up. But with companies increasingly opting for re-engineering efforts and state of the art technology, the need for less is more. The message is not lost on the employees. It is pretty loud and clear. Nobody have a secure job anymore.

This causes heightened pangs of anxiety, fear, and depression. The sense of insecurity is chillingly real. And it looms pretty large. Outsourcing is another threat that is eclipsing the life of employees in the developed country. Today a greater chunk of the jobs are being off-shored to countries like India and Israel which have emerged as hub of global outsourcing business. The joke doing the rounds is that the average professionals in developed countries are finding much of their job being Bangalored

Put it all together, you find a heightened sense of dispiritedness pervading the corridors of many companies today. The spirit doesn't have an outlet. The spirit in the employees feels too claustrophobic to breathe easily to find an expression openly and to express itself freely. One can still view all these developments from a different dimension-spiritual. Employees can take all these developments as a source of rich learning experience. They may find a greater degree of security by being anchored to some thing that is very real-that is our spirit. This maturation of mental resources will help employees morph into full adulthood from being a dependant child parented and mollycoddled by the company. This is the first baby step an employee could take in his never-ending sojourn towards spirituality.

Growing interest in workplace spirituality:

Workplace spirituality has become an attractive focus for researchers in the recent past. Market is flooded with books that offer an enlightening take on spirituality at work. Books like Jesus CEO, Liberating the corporate soul, what would Buddha do at the work, Soul of business are noteworthy examples of growing interest in workplace spirituality. Stephen covey's best-selling book seven habits of highly effective people is a path –breaking attempt in the realm of workplace spirituality. It is a ready reckoner for the organization to build up their spiritual quotient. Dalai Lama's ethics for new millennium has found greater acceptance among the corporate honchos. Bagavat gita, holy Hindu text that resonates with moral and spiritual codes is being discussed gingerly in the board rooms of corporate America today. Growing interest in workplace spirituality is spawning many national newsletters and associations based on this theme. World over, companies organize conferences and workshop on similar theme to help employees discover their spiritual calling.

How companies are reaching out?

Businesses are acutely aware of the potential benefits that the spirited workplace can deliver. No wonder companies are allowing study and prayer groups in their precincts. Some companies organize high-power lunches. Chaplains are being roped in by companies to spread spirituality. Many a company invest sizeable amount in hosting conferences, workshop and symposium on spirituality at work. Companies also help employees learn meditation, yoga, Taichi, Pranayama, Visioning exercises, and Auto-suggestions\self-dialogue. Meditation has the power to tame our mind and attain inner Calmness. This will help employees to step up their productivity. In India, Maharishi institute of management studies conducts such programmes for the benefit of corporate Leaders. Companies like Reckitt &Colomon, Indian Petro Chemicals .Tata Tea and Tata chemicals are the beneficiaries of such programmes. Art of living courses by sree sree Ravishankar foundation is also gaining acceptance among managers these days. Vipassana- a10 day programme has found favor with companies like Wipro, Escotel, Dabur, Varn organics. Surprisingly, such programmes are open to not only the managers but also to the members of trade union. Such programmes might help bring about calmness in the mind of the union members. They become mindful of their responsibilities vis-ŕ-vis the stakeholders. The programme will also enable the managers to take a compassionate stand towards their sub-ordinates, and colleagues resulting in better human relations. Many a companies in India thus follows the new-age principles, which has its moorings in Indian ethos to increase the spiritual heft in the organization. Meditation for better stress management, Purushartta for achieving balance between professional and personal life, yoga for healthy, disease-free life are some of the oft-used new age principles that are finding its way in to the otherwise soulless, lifeless corporates .If Indian Companies can borrow new-age principles from Vedic precepts and practice it religiously, can the western world be left far behind? Apple computers in California have a separate meditation room where employees can meditate for half-an-hour every day too keep the stress at bay. Prentice-hall publishing company has "quiet room" where employees can meditate in calm, quiet, and relaxed manner to bust their stress. Xerox Company has its own spiritual retreat called "vision quest." Vision quest helps employees commune with nature. Microsoft has its own on-line spiritual service to shoo the work-related blues away.

Spiritual workplace: win-win situation for the employee and organization:

Spirited organizations are aware of the inherent benefits that spirituality will accrue to all the stake holders.

*  In a spirited workplace, employees can get an ample opportunity to unleash their latent, but creative potentialities.
*  Scope for personal and organizational transformation is immense.
*  Fosters a climate of trust, loyalty, open, honest and authentic communication and commitment among the members of the organization.
*  Helps employee appreciate each others point of view, convictions (religious and general), and beliefs. Cultivates inclusiveness and values diversity.
*  Increased ethical behavior
*  An opportunity to morph into a close, well-knit community of mutual care, help, and service. Such communities have a greater sense of purpose
*  Enhanced productivity
*  Reduced absenteeism (employees can bid adieu to "ugh! It-is –Monday. Back-to-work" syndrome)
*  Enhanced job satisfaction levels. Personal satisfaction of the employees also sky-rockets. A study commissioned by Wilson learning company found that the majority of Americans (47%) cited spirituality as their most important source of happiness, next only to health.
*  Spirituality at workplace helps employees to be in-sync with the source of creativity. Creativity will flourish when the spirit express itself bountifully. A creative mind can create world-class products that will enhance human life.
*  Spirited workplaces will help the company earn the sobriquet of "great place to work." "Employer of choice" is a tag the employer can wear proudly.
*  In a highly commoditized job market, where the war for talent is fiercely raging, spirited companies can retain the best talent with in the company.

Spirituality at workplace is also fraught with risks:

o doubt, spirituality at work portends well for the organization and its benefits are huge. But the companies, while embracing spirituality will have to tread the path with caution and tact.

Employees   may perceive it as a covert attempt by the organization to bring in religious convictions through backdoor. Still worse employees of dominant religion within the company may resent and repress the religious beliefs of other employees leading to irreconcilable conflicts and dysfunctional inter-personal relationships. Many may like the separation of faith and business and prefer a very secular work environment. Fear of religious conversion, forced religious study groups, recruitment, selection, and promotion decisions based on religious consideration may rear its ugly head. Some  Employees may take a cynical view and laugh it off as a latest management fad. A passing squall. Some may view it as a desperate attempt by the management to shore up the bleeding bottom-line. Unless the companies muster up enough courage to carry the conviction of creating a spirited workplace and walk the talk, employees will not bite the bait.

Work place spirituality: Need of the hour

Work place spirituality will work wonders for business. Employees may forge long-lasting relationship with the company if they feel their contributions are being acknowledged, their thoughts on processes are being listened to, their ethical behavior being encouraged, their personal and professional needs are met, and their soul, mind, and body awakened to the highest level. Employees look for more than just "jaw-dropping" pay packages. They want spiritual fulfillment. A spiritual bankruptcy will catapult the company in to wilderness and Permanent sanyas .A complete oblivion will stare them in their faces if they do not seize the moment and act decisively to become a dharma exemplar .Are the companies listening?

N.R. Aravamudhan
Senior Faculty
Suverna International Institute of Management Studies

Source: E-mail May 23, 2007


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