A new spirit at work

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

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.

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.

"We need to use the language of people in business," adds Richard Barrett, a former World Bank official who helped spur an international conference on spiritual values and development. "And values is where it is right now." In the past three years, his consulting firm has worked with more than 300 companies in 24 countries to help them create values-driven organizations.

Patricia Aburdene, coauthor of the Megatrends books, sees the rise of spirituality in the workplace as "a trend that is about to become a megatrend." She says it's reaching the "tipping point" for several reasons:

• The enormous stress people are under due to the economic and security crises of the past two years.

• Demographic data revealing a mushrooming segment of "cultural creatives" for whom values trump money and other trappings of success.

• Business leaders with their own notion of personal transformation or a spiritual path now bringing it into their institutions. (Spirituality in the field of medicine is a bellwether, she says.)

• A convergence of the movements of social responsibility and spirituality.

"All this is coming together to create a transformation of capitalism," Ms. Aburdene predicts. "The tenet of the Milton Friedman school that the sole purpose is to create economic value for shareholders is seen as having led us down the path to troubles, and this is compelling a rethinking of our philosophy of business."

Admittedly, the corporate world isn't rushing to sign up. "Even though you can show that those organizations with a spiritual orientation outperform others, even on the profit side, only a tiny percentage of business leaders 'get it,' " says USC's Dr. Mitroff. "It's a different mind-set between reactive, bottom-line-driven organizations and those that are more humane, driven by higher values."

Many business schools are even abandoning ethics classes, he says.

But numerous organizations are fostering the idea. The WBA is the oldest, founded 17 years ago. It has a center in São Paulo, Brazil; a graduate management facility in India; and a new academy in Croatia, where it will train executives from Eastern Europe.

ASAW, a professional association and a resource center for people involved with spirituality in the workplace (www.spiritatwork.org), formed in 1993, now has 50 chapters worldwide.

Beyond social responsibility

A newer international group, Spirit in Business (SiB), aims at changing the core priorities of the business world to focus on the good of all, says board member Terry Mollner. A pioneer in socially responsible investing, Dr. Mollner helped found the Calvert Social Investment Mutual Fund in 1982, the first such fund. But for him, social responsibility represents only half the loaf, since it doesn't address core priorities.

"The publicly traded corporation is really not a group of human beings but a set of contracts, like a machine," he says. "They give priority to the few at the expense of the many, and that's the contract they have with society. But we need to evolve a more mature system that gives priority to the good of all."

This is what SiB is about. It has held two conferences in the US, with another planned for Thailand this year, and has incorporated entities in the Netherlands, Australia, and the US that will fund projects. Some of its leaders are Buddhists, and the Dalai Lama spoke to the first conference on "Compassion or Competition."

Some, evangelical Christians in particular, concerned that the spirituality movement represents inroads of New Age thinking or Eastern religions, are also beginning to focus on the workplace. Last April, the Billy Graham Training Center hosted a conference for pastors and members of the International Christian Coalition of Workplace Ministries. They committed to focusing on "the new mission field of the 9-to-5 window in the workplace, where more unsaved people live than any mission field in the world."

Academic institutions, too, are getting involved. Yale University, for example, recently set up the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, with a focus on ethics and spirituality in the workplace to help people integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.

The spirituality movement is in its infancy, Mollner says. But his experience with socially responsible investing convinces him that much is possible. The social screens that he and a few friends sat down and wrote in 1976 are now used by almost all investment funds.

"If this approach is more mature, it will slowly gather adherents," he says.

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