For more information, contact:
Gary Schouborg, PhD
Schouborg, Gary (2002). "Spirituality and Business: Where’s the Beef?"
In The 2002 Annual: Volume 2 Consulting. Editor, Elaine Biech.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, pp. 261-275.
SPIRITUALITY AND BUSINESS: WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Gary Schouborg, Ph.D.
ABSTRACT. “Taking a spiritual approach to business” is an increasingly popular concept that can easily waste corporate resources unless properly understood. It is filled with high-minded ideas, but where’s the beef? How is it really useful? TCP (Transcendence, Connection, Presence) is a model for its productive use. TCP shows that spirituality is not something separate from business, but a natural part of business that enhances both performance and job satisfaction. TCP uses psychological language rather than traditionally spiritual terms such as “God,” “soul,” and “prayer.” This allows TCP to connect to the various spiritual traditions that different readers may follow and to apply their teachings directly to business. TCP displays the relationship between spirituality and business through the Performance Matrix, which shows that business is the product of two dimensions, a material focus (traditional business factors) and a spiritual focus (your openness and flexibility with regard to business factors). After reading this article, you will understand how spirituality contributes to business performance. Second, you will see how spirituality contributes to job satisfaction. Third, you will understand how this account is related to traditional notions of spirituality, so that you can make good use of traditional spiritual resources to enhance business performance and job satisfaction.
Traditionally, business focuses on relatively clear things like customer satisfaction, productivity, market share, and profits. Spiritual approaches, on the other hand, are more vague, but are often thought to express “high-minded,” “non-material” values such as:
work that makes sense
a felt Connection between a company and its employees
integration of head and heart
a common goal, vision
contributing to the common, social good
respecting the environment
open and honest communication
treating employees humanely
providing work with dignity
providing a living wage
mutually supportive communication
Many of these items are standard concepts from organizational development that have inspired widely employed business practices. To that extent, business has already become progressively though covertly spiritual. Recent talk about spirituality both supports the trend and makes the connection between these concepts and traditional spirituality overt.
Explicit reference to spirituality allows you to do several things. You can identify what the above concepts have in common. You can understand the nature of the organizational trend that employs them. You can assess the effects of that trend, for good or for ill, on business performance and job satisfaction. Finally, you can understand the relationship of that trend to traditional spiritual teachings and practices, so that you can effectively apply them to business.
However, talk about spirituality also creates at least two problems. First, its vagueness makes it difficult to measure how a spiritual approach contributes to business productivity. Second, its “high-mindedness” can seduce some individuals into promoting spirituality divorced from its contribution to legitimate business goals or, in the worst case, in opposition to them.
You can adequately address these problems only by making the concept of spirituality clear, operational (tied to business goals and functions), and therefore useful.
Three key aspects of spirituality are Transcendence, Connection, and Presence. Though these qualities sound abstract, this article will explain them in down-to-earth terms that show their practicality for business. You will be given a model: TCP (for Transcendence, Connection, Presence). It is a framework to guide your thinking and performance.
Briefly, a spiritual approach to business is being as open and responsive as possible to ALL the factors that contribute to business performance. A spiritual approach is therefore transcendent in that it urges you to grow beyond the status quo: beyond your current business thinking, strategies, and practices. A spiritual approach is connected in that it leaves you involved: looking for and motivated to deal with the many interrelated factors that contribute to achieving your business goals. Together, your transcendent openness and connection make you present to, fully engaged in, your work.
After reading this article, you will understand how spirituality contributes to business performance. Second, you will see how spirituality contributes to job satisfaction. Third, you will understand how this account is related to commonly accepted notions of spirituality, so that you can make good use of traditional spiritual resources to enhance business performance and job satisfaction.
The framework offered here builds on traditional notions of spirituality, allowing you to apply the depth and scope of traditional spiritual energy to your business in two ways. First, if you are religious, it alerts you to how spirituality is part of business. It helps you see a depth to the business enterprise that may have been previously hidden if you thought of it as “only” business, an activity distinct from and perhaps even opposed to spiritual activity. Secondly, even if you have no interest in religion or think that it has no place in the business world, by clearly focusing on openness and flexibility the framework offered here brings to your attention a dimension of business that is essential to your success. It provides a criterion for assessing the effectiveness of policies and training efforts that claim to be spiritual: Do they result in more effective performance by encouraging employees to consider and respond adequately to important business factors?
To understand any concept, it is often helpful to contrast it with something else. To emphasize that spirituality is an essential part of productive business, I will contrast our TCP model of Transcendence, Connection, and Presence with three mistaken notions of spirituality, each of which makes spirituality and business separate realities.
Three myths of spirituality misunderstand it by thinking of it and business as two separate things, like food and drink (or worse, like oil and water). Having separated spiritual and business needs, the myths then argue among themselves as to whether spirituality or business has priority when the two conflict.
Myth # 1: Spiritual needs take priority over business needs.
This view assumes that spirituality and business are separate and can therefore conflict. When they do, it assumes that you should address spiritual needs first.
Take the example of XYZ Corporation, which can continue to operate (business need) only by employing workers for $1 a day (less than a living wage, which is often assumed to be a spiritual need). According to Myth # 1, XYZ should disband itself rather than continue to exploit its workers. That is, the spiritual need for not exploiting workers is more important than the business need of making a profit.
Myth # 2: Business needs take priority over spiritual needs.
This view believes that you should address business needs first, because it’s hard enough just to meet a payroll and survive against accelerating competition. It’s asking too much of management to consider spiritual needs too. If employees have spiritual needs, let them satisfy them off the job, just as they do other personal needs.
According to Myth # 2, it’s enough that XYZ management keeps the enterprise going without asking it to address its workers’ spiritual needs too (assuming that a living wage counts as a spiritual value). In the final analysis, it’s better for the workers to have some job than none at all.
Myth # 3: Attempts to reconcile Myths # 1 and # 2 by arguing that spirituality is in business’ enlightened self-interest.
This view agrees that spirituality and business are separate, but argues that spirituality is in business’ enlightened self-interest. According to Myth # 3, a spiritual approach does not take away from, but enhances, productivity. This myth comes the closest of the three to the TCP model. But, unlike TCP, Myth # 3 cannot reconcile the other two myths, because like them it misunderstands spirituality and business to be separate.
Myth # 3 refuses to accept the assumption that XYZ Corporation cannot continue operating without paying employees a living wage. Instead it argues that improving wages is a win-win strategy that will boost employee health and morale, and thus improve productivity. The value of Myth # 3 is that it brings our attention to win-win solutions that we might otherwise overlook, helping us identify situations where we really can increase productivity if we address spiritual needs. The problem, however, is that there is no guarantee that spirituality and business will always be congruent. For example, in some cases increasing wages will put you out of business. The profitability of the business simply does not allow employees to make a living wage or work under humane conditions. In situations like that, where spirituality and business conflict, Myth # 3 has no way of deciding which takes priority, spirituality (Myth # 1) or business (Myth # 2).
Shall XYZ management continue current wages in order to maintain operations (and jobs)? Or shall it improve wages and go out of business (and destroy jobs)? Is it better for the employees to enjoy more humane conditions for a short time and then lose their jobs? Or are they better off suffering less humane conditions indefinitely but keeping their jobs? On the one hand, how can a spiritually sensitive person sleep nights on profits earned by something close to slave labor? On the other hand, how are the employees helped by a morally righteous owner who simply disbands business and leaves them unemployed? After all, the employees themselves seem to be voting with their hands and feet that even “inhumane” conditions are better than unemployment.
Supporters of either side of this issue will argue endlessly without achieving consensus, since the root cause of their conflict is the initial separation of spirituality from business. Once that Humpty Dumpty has fallen, no one will put him back together again.
The TCP model reconciles the three myths above because it provides a more integrated view. Spiritual approaches to business are a part of business itself. For business is a function of two factors, spiritual and material, just as a statue is a function of shape and material or a computer is a function of software and hardware. Spirituality is not separate from business, but one of its components, just as the shape of a statue is part of the statue itself or software is an integral part of a functioning computer.
The material dimension of business includes factors like products, assets, cash flow, market share, and profits. The spiritual dimension involves your relationship to those factors: how open and responsive you are to them, using them appropriately to achieve your business goals. You can no more separate business and spirituality than you can separate a statue and its shape or a functioning computer and its software. For you can’t separate business factors from your relationship to them. The three myths err in identifying business only with its material factors and then introducing spirituality as a second reality separate from business.
TCP offers no easy answers for what XYZ Corporation should do. But you will see below that it does offer a framework that increases the chances of an optimal solution and enables you to deal emotionally with irreconcilable conflict when it occurs.
TCP is pragmatic in the best sense of the word. Following it, you as a business person work out your spirituality by being as open and responsive as possible to your material circumstances (for example, traditional business factors such as products, assets, cash flow, market share, and profits). The matrix below illustrates your options: you can operate along a continuum from high to low in two dimensions, spiritual and material, resulting in four kinds of performance. (Although the matrix visually suggests four separate compartments, they really differ only in degree.) Notice that spirituality is no longer separate from business; rather, optimal business performance results from the synergy between spiritual and material business factors.
Business performance is a function of a material focus (traditional business factors) and a spiritual focus (openness and flexibility: how you intellectually and emotionally relate to business factors). Low material and low spiritual focus generate poor performance. High material focus and low spiritual focus create good performance that is unsustainable. High spiritual focus and low material focus result in misdirected performance. High material and high spiritual focus produce optimal performance.
To the extent that you inadequately respond to traditional business factors (LOW MATERIAL) and do that without being open to feedback and ready to revise your operations (LOW SPIRITUAL), you generate POOR PERFORMANCE, which is unacceptably productive and leaves you experiencing your work as meaningless and frustrating. Many companies have been initially successful even while inadequately responding to traditional business factors, because they rode the wave of their industry growth. But if they did not eventually acknowledge and correct their mistakes, they failed to maintain their success.
If you adequately respond to traditional business factors (HIGH MATERIAL) but are not open to feedback and ready to improve your operations (LOW SPIRITUAL), your performance is SHORT-SIGHTED. It will produce burnout and work against you in the long run. Certainly, there are high material, low spiritual systems that are extremely successful. But no one seriously proposes that they can maintain their success unless they adapt to changing circumstances. The history of American enterprise is filled with companies that flourished and declined because they did not acknowledge and adapt to changing circumstances.
If you inadequately respond to traditional business factors (LOW MATERIAL) but emphasize openness and responsiveness (HIGH SPIRITUAL), your performance is ungrounded. It is ideological if your focus is on abstract principle. It is sentimental if your focus is on feeling good without adequately considering consequences. In either case, your efforts are misdirected and what satisfaction you derive from your “ideals” is illusory and unproductive. Even the strongest advocates of a spiritual approach to business do not seriously suggest that the finest ideals are sufficient if traditional business factors are inadequately addressed. TCP insists that the authenticity of your spirituality in business be assessed in terms of effective performance rather than good intentions.
If you adequately respond to traditional business factors (HIGH MATERIAL) and also remain flexible and open to improvement (HIGH SPIRITUAL), your performance is OPTIMAL. You are performing adequately now and are alert both to improving and to adapting to changing circumstances.
Since these four categories are not watertight compartments, consider the center as a gray area of development or decline. For example, if you inadequately respond to traditional business factors (LOW MATERIAL) but are genuinely flexible and open to learning (HIGH SPIRITUAL), you can improve your material dimension and move toward OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE.
The Performance Matrix shows the interplay between the material and spiritual dimensions of business in general. More concretely, here are seven guidelines for applying TCP to your particular situation.
Guideline # 1: Express your spiritual approach completely in business terms.
Remember, TCP understands that spirituality is not something separate from business. It is your relationship to traditional business factors such as customer satisfaction, productivity, market share, and profits. Therefore, talk of spirituality that is separated from business falls into one of the three myths above, with all their resulting problems.
Guideline # 2: Identify all the stakeholders of your business.
The stakeholder system includes not only shareholders but management, employees, suppliers, and customers. It even includes social and physical environments insofar as they affect the business. No enterprise is an island. You must identify all the stakeholders in order to understand the system of which your business is a part. All stakeholders have some interest in your business because they are affected by it. They will not passively accept your decisions forever. They will affect your business in turn, for good or ill.
Guideline # 3: Assess recommended spiritual policies and training by how much they help all stakeholders consider and adequately respond to all important business factors.
This guideline tests the mettle of any talk about spirituality. To satisfy Transcendence, you must open stakeholders to interests other than their own. To satisfy Connection, you must help stakeholders see themselves as a part of an interrelated system. Shareholders supply the capital, management the direction, employees the products and services, suppliers the more basic products and services, and customers the revenues. The social environment provides shareholders, managers, employees, suppliers, and customers themselves. And it supplies the infrastructure that enables all of them to interact productively. The physical environment functions like the social environment at one more level removed.
Together, Transcendence and Connection make stakeholders Present to one another as interrelated parts of a system that they all share. Presence means that stakeholders are increasingly aware of their interdependence, so that no contributor to the system is overlooked and system performance thereby harmed. Guideline # 3 thus avoids both an extreme individualism that neglects the whole and a totalitarianism that neglects the contribution of any individual.
Guideline # 4: Make the stakeholders, not profits, your priority.
Profits are important. They are a direct goal of the shareholders. They are an indirect goal of employees, whose direct goal of wages depends on profits. They are also an indirect goal of suppliers, whose profits depend on yours. They are an indirect goal even of customers, whose immediate goal of receiving a valued product or service is unlikely to be met by an unprofitable business. Even social and physical environments are indirectly interested in business profits, since a profitable company creates wealth for society and is more likely than an unprofitable one to respect the physical environment. Management has the most complicated relationship to profits, since it is directly responsible for creating them but can do so only if it adequately addresses the goals of all the stakeholders. For profitability cannot be maintained unless the system is honored, which means that the needs of every element in it are addressed.
Therefore, in spite of their importance, profits are just one part of stakeholder requirements. To understand the role of profits in the whole system that is your business, you must first identify all the stakeholders and their objectives. Then you can understand the different ways in which profits help achieve those various goals.
Guideline # 5: Negotiate from self-respect.
Guidelines #4 explains why you should respect the system and all its stakeholders. In contrast, this guideline emphasizes self-respect to make the point that you do not have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of respect for others. Indeed, the best long-term guarantee that you will respect others is if you respect yourself. The reason is that self-respect (from the Latin, meaning “look back on one’s self”) is the awareness of what you are as an individual, which includes your participation in countless interconnected systems. Your awareness of that interconnection compels you to take others into account, to respect them since you and they are connected.
Negotiating from self-respect is therefore a deeply spiritual approach because it opens you up to yourself, the system of which you are a part, the other stakeholders of the system, and all the interrelationships involved. In other words, self-respect itself generates a sense of interconnection, which is a core feature of spiritual experience. Furthermore, it helps you make a spiritual approach to business genuinely operational, since it ties all talk about spirituality to the system and its stakeholders.
Recall XYZ Corporation’s dilemma of being unable both to give workers a living wage and to maintain profitability. Guideline # 5 tells you that you cannot deny the humanity of the workers without hardening yourself to your own humanity. The reason is that your own self-respect requires you to acknowledge that you are a part of a system composed of fellow human beings. You cannot therefore deny their humanity without diminishing your awareness of the kind of system of which you are a part -- that is, without reducing your own self-respect. Negotiating from self-respect therefore demands that you be honest and forthright. It does not mean, however, that you indulge your employees, since customers, suppliers, management, shareholders, as well as the social and physical environment in which you operate, have their different interests. That fact, of course, leaves you with no easy answers. However, the role of spirituality is not to provide easy answers, but to give you the spirit and courage to be open and responsive, so you can make optimal decisions in a complex world. As you will see below, all stakeholders in a system seldom if ever get everything they want. A key function of spirituality is to help you cope with the fact of limits.
Guideline # 6: Require that all stakeholders meet their commitments.
You are part of a system composed of human beings, who, if they are rational, will not continue to do business with others who fail to keep their commitments. The reason is fundamentally more pragmatic than moralistic: they cannot achieve their objectives if they depend upon unreliable associates. Honoring commitments is the glue that keeps systems together. Being open and responsive to the system(s) of which you are a part therefore requires that you honor your commitments and insist that others honor theirs. At the same time, your commitments are not ends in themselves, but have value insofar as they contribute to the system. They are therefore not rigid; you should renegotiate them as changing demands are put on the system from whatever quarter.
This analysis explains why honoring commitments is a key part of every spiritual tradition. The interconnection of all to all is at the core of spirituality, and human beings cannot nurture their mutual interconnection if they fail to meet their commitments. You therefore make your participation in your business system spiritual by serving the system with integrity, by giving 100% of what you have contracted to give.
Here again we see that spirituality is a natural part of the system, not something “higher” and added to it. Shareholders and managers who sacrifice the system for quick profits, employees and suppliers who do not perform or who demand recompense that destroys sustainable profitability, customers who demand products and services at unprofitable prices, environmental demands that ignore economic laws of how human goods are created -- by ignoring other parts of the whole system, each group risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Guideline # 7: Broaden your perspective and foster a climate for others to do so as well.
Guidelines ## 1 through 6 are hard-headed counsels to make a spiritual approach operational. Guideline # 7 is the soft-hearted advice to open up -- soft-hearted, yes, but the most challenging guideline of all. All spiritual teaching boils down to this: personal, spiritual development is continuously opening yourself up to broader perspectives and a wider emotional world -- in other words, becoming increasingly aware of, and concerned about, the systems of which you are a part. The preceding analysis shows why this is just good business.
This guideline tells you that your current situation is not set in concrete. It is in your interest that you improve your workers’ conditions as opportunities permit, in order to make them more productive. It is in their interest that they grow in understanding of the realities of their situation, in order to accept with dignity what they cannot change and to make good use of opportunities for improvement as they present themselves.
This guideline therefore provides a two-edged corrective. If you are an exploiter of labor and you want an easy answer that ignores the plight of the less powerful, Guideline # 7 urges that you open your mind and heart to explore whether you are acknowledging the workers’ rightful place in the whole system. And if you are a champion of the downtrodden and you want an easy answer that ignores business realities, the guideline urges that you open your mind and heart to explore whether you are acknowledging the rightful place of other stakeholders as well as of employees.
Even in a flourishing economy of plenty, you can seldom achieve all stakeholders’ goals, and never for long. Circumstances change. Or the desires themselves change as current satisfaction wanes. Suffering or disappointment is therefore inevitable. A key function of spirituality is to help people emotionally cope with that fact of human existence: to heal the hurt and disappointment that failed dreams bring; to summon the courage to make necessary changes and risk the unknown. TCP speaks not only to intellectual and policy requirements, but to those emotional needs as well.
In the happy circumstance where individual interests also promote the system, everyone wins: the business can satisfy customers and generate profits. A business that can offer good wages, benefits, and a stimulating and enjoyable work environment can attract and retain productive workers. A business that is profitable can attract good suppliers as well as eager investors. A business that has efficient processes and is continuously improving them can be responsive to the marketplace, increase profits, stimulate productivity further, and attract more customers, better employees and suppliers, and more capital. Such a business is a boon to the community and is in the best possible position to honor the demands of the physical environment in which it operates.
However, even in that best of all possible worlds, circumstances are constantly changing, demanding that you be flexible, that you not be wedded to your present way of thinking and doing things. Changing circumstances demand that you risk change, that you risk moving into an uncertain future. To do that requires moral courage, letting go of the familiar and venturing into the unknown. Such moral courage is at the heart of every spiritual tradition.
Traditional spirituality has three defining characteristics: Transcendence, Connection, and Presence. Whatever form a particular spiritual tradition may take, it serves all three.
Ethical systems that arise from spiritual traditions commonly teach brotherhood. In doing so, they urge you to move beyond narrow self-interest (Transcendence), often giving the reason that you and others are “children of the same God” (Connection). The spiritual traditions that produce those ethical systems usually promise that those who honor Transcendence and Connection in their behavior will be Present to one another in satisfying ways. TCP teaches the same thing, but uses psychological language rather than traditionally spiritual terms such as “God,” “soul,” and “prayer.” This allows TCP to connect to the various spiritual traditions that different readers may follow and to apply their teachings directly to business.
Prayer in many forms reminds you that you are not self-sufficient (Connection). That is often an anxiety-provoking realization that prayer helps many people admit and accept. Prayer also reminds you that you are dependent on powers greater than your own (Transcendence) and helps you reach deep within yourself for resources that you may not have known you had available to you. Whether you attribute those resources to God or to your Unconscious or to something else, prayer helps make them available to you by helping your acknowledge that your ordinary way of doing things is inadequate to the present situation. Whether you call it prayer or meditation or just plain quiet time, prayer is how you occasionally dwell quietly within yourself (Presence) to understand and apply to your life both your limitations and your inner resources. Again, TCP does not more than state this in simple, psychological terms.
Even mysticism, which might seem to be the most unworldly, most unbusinesslike of experiences, dovetails with the TCP model. For not every form of mysticism is a withdrawing from the everyday world, but can be the intense and concrete realization of Transcendence, Connection, and Presence in daily life. Such “everyday” mystics are taken beyond their ordinary way of thinking and behaving (Transcendence). They more than usually realize the interconnection of things (Connection). And through these twin realizations, they feel themselves vitally present to the world around them (Presence). Their language often sounds exotic, as if they are transported to a world completely unrelated to the ordinary one in which business exists. But careful reading reveals that their core mystical realization is that nothing is profane, that the divine is found in how we relate to what we are doing in our ordinary, daily lives. Again, TCP merely translates the insight of those mystics into ordinary terms that can be directly applied to business.
The error called materialism is not in loving profits, but in relating to them narrowly, obsessively, so as to rob ourselves of both satisfaction and flexibility. Rather than moving beyond this world to a higher one, the Transcendence of the TCP model is moving beyond one system to another of which it is a part or subsystem. This movement opens us up to ever more comprehensive systems, including all of humanity, and ultimately to all of reality as a system that encompasses all others. As our perspective broadens, it moves along a continuum from specific and easily identifiable systems to less identifiable but more inclusive ones. Our sense of system moves correspondingly from tangible to intangible, ultimately to mystery: a generalized sense of an all-inclusive but undefinable system variously called God, Allah, Great Spirit, Brahman. Even when we are addressing a specific business system, a similar but inward movement opens us up to mystery, since relating spiritually to anything opens us to energies within ourselves that are increasingly intangible, less readily identified and explained: Tao, Self, Non-Dual Consciousness, No Mind, God’s presence within.
Accompanying increased Transcendence is a growing sense of Connection -- to all the elements of our business system (customers, employees, suppliers, management, shareholders, and their social and physical environment). Since none of these elements is an isolated atom, each connects us to yet further systems. As with Transcendence, our sense of Connection becomes increasingly comprehensive and intangible until it moves into mystery.
This spiritual focus sensitizes us to Connections, but does not tell us their nature. Our material focus tells us that. Connection is not necessarily warm and fuzzy. Although business realities demand that we cooperate with others, those same realities also reveal that the others have interests that often conflict with our own. Even when we share common interests, others often have opinions that conflict with ours as to how to achieve them. Connection is neither a simple matter of giving ourselves over to the will of others (group think) nor of blaming them for being so unselfish as to not yield to us. It is finding the most mutually productive way of cooperating, negotiating fairly when our interests conflict, and emotionally accepting the situation with dignity when we cannot achieve everything we want. TCP spirituality is not found in the impossible dream of eliminating conflict, but in working through conflict productively, with mutual respect, and with emotional equanimity.
As all members of the system transcend their narrow self-interest and work out their Connection productively, they become present to one another is a more gratifying way. They win the respect, perhaps even the affection, of one another because they are increasingly alert to one another and their needs. They are authentically in the world, because they are connected to it and open to adapting to it as it changes.
This account of spirituality opens up at least two issues that are beyond the scope of this article. The first is the question of whether economic progress can replace win-lose with win-win competition. It is worth exploring to what extent operating spiritually enhances the odds of win-win situations. It would seem that openness and proactive creativity are inclined to find ways where conflicting parties can team together, rather than defeat, one another. To know how far this can go requires both further research and further entrepreneurial creativity. Secondly, this account opens up a fertile area for assessment. Empirical evidence must be found to confirm that certain policies and training are more effective than others in leading stakeholders to consider and effectively respond to all important contributors to business performance.
Gary Schouborg, PhD is a partner of GaryNini.com, Life and Communication coaches, Walnut Creek, California. He has been a Jesuit priest and taught philosophy, psychology, and mathematics. He has also been a telecommunications consultant with sales management responsibilities and has published academic research in philosophy and religious studies, practical business manuals in performance improvement, and poetry.