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A new spirit at work

Leaders around the world are moving to transform the business world with an infusion of spiritual values.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2003



Signs of spirituality in the workplace keep turning up: thousands of prayer or meditation groups; company-sponsored chaplains; conferences and executive training sessions that experiment with spiritual practices or how to incorporate values into decisionmaking.

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Yet as corporate scandals capture headlines, this groundswell of activity has begun coalescing into a movement not just for personal growth but for fundamental organizational and cultural change.

A small global network of corporate leaders is emerging that is forging a new vision for business. As the world's most dominant institution, and the one most capable of rapid change, business must take responsibility for promoting not simply private gain but the common good, these leaders say. This means redefining business to focus on people and on decisionmaking based on values - like integrity, respect, intuition, and creativity. The shift involves going beyond maximizing profits to considering all stakeholders: employees, customers, vendors, shareholders, and the community.

Many see the push for change as the desire of people to lead lives more in tune with their spiritual values. "The pain and frustration around the workplace and the anger about corporations has grown dramatically," says Judi Neal, head of the Association for Spirit at Work (ASAW). "People want to find more meaning in work and to see business transformed to run on different principles."

While the goals sound similar to those in the growing social responsibility movement, the aim is for deeper change. Some leaders perceive a profound shift in the fundamental assumptions about reality - one that involves a new view that consciousness is causal and gives much greater import to individuals' inner experience. "Instead of what you see is what you believe, it's what you believe is what you see," says Rinaldo Brutoco, president of the World Business Academy (WBA), a California-based organization of executives and entrepreneurs (www.worldbusiness.org). Mr. Brutoco sees scientific materialism yielding to a respiritualization of society.

Positive benefits

While only a small percentage of businesspeople would be comfortable with such language, these leaders acknowledge, there is a growing willingness to think that spirituality has positive benefits so long as there is no promotion of specific religions.

Here and there, individual firms are proving that prioritizing people and values breeds success. For example:

• A small regional Texas clothing chain called The Men's Wearhouse (www.menswearhouse.com) chose to create a new corporate culture 13 years ago. It shifted to offer top-quality clothing and made employee fulfillment its first priority, followed by that of other stakeholders. Putting those values into operation, the $64 million business has become a $1.4 billion international company. For the past three years, it has made Fortune's list of "100 Best Companies to Work for in America."

• In 1995, Unitel, a Canadian telecommunications company, was losing more than $1 million a day, with inferior products and services, and employee morale measured at one of the lowest levels of 500 North American companies. A new chief executive, Bill Catucci, led a dramatic turnaround by engaging employees in defining corporate values and developing structures to ensure they could live by them. The values they chose: integrity, customer delight, respect for people, innovation, teamwork, and prudent risk-taking.

By 1999, customer turnover had declined by 30 percent, revenues nearly doubled, and the company's value had quadrupled to $1 billion, according to At Work Journal. The firm, which became AT&T Canada, was also among the top five in North America in employee morale. "People are crying out for this," says Mr. Catucci of values-driven management. Now head of Regulatory DataCorp, he says the approach "is just as valid in Latin America and Europe."

• Some major companies in Australia and India are also in the vanguard. McKinsey & Co. and ANZ Bank have seen positive benefits from cultural-change initiatives. SREI International Financial Limited and the Times of India have introduced policies and programs to foster spiritual values.

In the United States, a 1999 study, "A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America," found executives hungry for models of practicing spirituality in the workplace without offending people; but lacking such models, many were afraid to use the word spirituality. Yet, the executives held very similar definitions of what it meant: "a total sense of connectedness in the universe; belief in a deity, and in a moral obligation to do good in the world," says Ian Mitroff, a professor at University of Southern California business school and coauthor of the study.

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