Spirit at Work

by Sue Howard

Spiritual development in the organisation

How can an organisation work with a wide diversity of belief sets within its workplace about what spirit is, and then apply initiatives that do not alienate some people?

Spirituality in the workplace gives people within the business the permission to explore their personal and collective inner needs and aspirations. It is inclusive of many differing traditions and its whole ethos is to encourage rather than to alienate.

As Cindy Wigglesworth has noted in the topic on Spiritual Intelligence, it is important to use language carefully. There are various ways of speaking about spirit.

Supportive initiatives are many and varied, so it is about incorporating those which seem most appropriate to the context and situation. This is often comprehensive in range and scope. The following case study illuminates some of the ways in which spirituality can be supported without being necessarily intrusive or alienating:

The Centre for Excellence in Leadership

In 2007, the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) commissioned a research project, which explored how their organisational effectiveness was impacted by supporting employees spiritually. CEL at the time was a non-faith based organisation. It joined forces with the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) in 2008 and became the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) in 2013. The CEL story has been written up and published in the book Spiritual Leadership in Action: The CEL story achieving extraordinary results through ordinary people. This book was launched by the International Institute for Spiritual Leadership. The original research conducted by Professor Yochanan Altman, Professor Mustafa Ozbilgin and Dr Elisabeth Wilson, and supported by Esade University and the Institute of Labor Studies, was written up in a report entitled: ‘A study on organisational effectiveness and well being at work: CEL as a case study’ and was published in September 2007.

At the time of the research, CEL was a high-performing organisation, offering leadership development programmes within the Further Education sector. The CEO actively promoted an inclusive culture, both in terms of diversity and of spiritual orientation/practice. Her leadership had taken the organisation from a floundering, ‘failing’ and ‘dysfunctional’ state (prior to her taking up the role) to one of positive impact and notable success in the FE sector within just a couple of years.

The researchers (Altman, Ozbilgin and Wilson) devised a model of ‘organisational spirituality’ that expands on current concepts of culture and change; they then used this model to analyse CEL. The model proposes that a spiritual organisation has a virtuous cycle, which incorporates some core elements:

  • A critical mass of individuals with a spiritual orientation who join the organisation
  • A precipitating event which creates need for doing things differently
  • A statement of the organisation’s espoused values
  • Values in practice are manifested in many ways – there are visible, pleasing, physical artefacts (such as office layout, for example), positive ways of working (such as management style, work-life balance policies, no ‘blame’ for mistakes, team-work and away days) and business is conducted in a way that external stakeholders notice as being ‘different’ (responsive, delivering more, energising and even life enhancing)
  • Another way in which values are put into practice is through outreach to the community
  • Internally, the experience of organisational members is congruent with their own spiritual values
  • The leaders live by their espoused values – they walk the talk.

The researchers assessed the organisation, using the components of this model to see how well it lived up to them.

While there is not room here to summarise the findings fully (copies of the report may be obtained from the writer of this topic), the research provides some clarity on how to put spirituality into action. In CEL, as in most organisations, there were people who held a variety of different religious beliefs, plus many who identified more with being ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’. Those with strong beliefs were clear that their faith was the bedrock for their values.

Both those with religious belief and those without any strong belief felt uncomfortable discussing their religious beliefs with colleagues. ‘Spiritual’ qualities were referred to in other ways, including scope for goodness, a democratic and enabling approach, consciousness of power and energy, honesty and caring.

Researchers concluded that spirituality could be seen as an organising principle in that it gives rise to values such as

  • Learner focus – holistic performance targets, ‘whole-person’ goals, coaching and constructive feedback
  • Servant leadership – practiced through trust, empowerment, delegation and a no-blame culture
  • Listening, empathy and dialogue are encouraged – nurturing personal, profession and spiritual growth amongst stakeholders
  • Win-win outcomes are emphasised between CEL and customers/clients.

CEL was explicit in recognising that there is an important dimension to life, in terms of people’s deeper motivations and commitments. In allowing for this deeper dimension, they were able to infuse their work environment with genuine energy, engagement and passion. The tangible outcomes were openness, visibility, honesty and trust – where everyone was respected (including agnostics and atheists). Making room for the spiritual aspects of human development was a key ingredient in the transformation which took place within CEL’s workplace culture.

There is a CEL development as a new book was launched by the International Institute for Spiritual Leadership.