Work and Spirituality

by Peter B. Grazier

Originally Published in EI Network February 1, 1997


Is it just me, or are we all beginning to notice a growing interest in the relationship between work and the human spirit? It seems my desk is surrounded by books, newsletters, and even corporate memos that in some way discuss this.

What sparked my interest in discussing this with you was a book notice from a friend of mine, Rae Thompson in Arlington, Virginia. Rae is one of 31 contributors to a book to be released this spring called The New Bottom Line---Bringing Heart & Soul to Business.

Stephen Covey says of the book, "This anthology effectively captures a spiritual renaissance taking place in the business world today. Without question it is only by aligning ourselves with a moral compass based on universal principles that we can continue to progress to a direction that will take us into the next century."

Again we hear the notion of a "spiritual renaissance."

"Spirit" as we are discussing it is defined as "that part of a human being that is incorporeal and invisible and is characterized by intelligence, personality, self-consciousness, and will---the immaterial nature or soul of man."

Perhaps it is this "invisible" and "immaterial" aspect that has kept it from the very material world of work. We can't hold it or touch it---get our hands around it. However, it's always there, even when every cell in our physical body is replaced every few years, the essence of who we are somehow remains. What seems to be driving this trend is the accelerating rate of change. Trend forecaster John Naisbitt says that "In turbulent times, in times of great change, people head for the two extremes: fundamentalism and personal, spiritual experience." (Megatrends 2000, 1990)

As early as 1980, Marilyn Ferguson, in her groundbreaking classic The Aquarian Conspiracy, pointed out that "making a life, not just a living, is essential to one seeking wholeness."

Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz have researched companies for years in the regular updating of their best-seller The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. They pose an interesting, but perplexing, question that challenges us to think differently about work:

"Most of us know---or, in our better moments, like to think we know---that money isn't everything, that the pursuit of power can be spiritually draining, and that happiness hinges crucially on a healthy inner spirit. Why, then, do we have to give up those beliefs when we come to work?"

Michael MacCoby's The Gamesman perhaps offers a partial answer:

"People think of the qualities of the heart as opposite to those of the head. They think heart means softness, feeling, and generosity, while head means toughness, realistic thought. But this contrast itself is symptomatic of a schizoid culture in which the heart is detached from the rest of the body. In pre-Cartesian traditional thought, the heart was considered the true seat of intelligence...the head can be smart but not wise."

Passion, pride, and desire are all qualities of the heart, and what manager wouldn't kill for a proud workforce full of passion about their work and the desire to perform? All high performance originates from the heart because it begins with the desire to perform.

Max DePree, CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., describes a simple, but profound, incident that altered the culture of his organization: 

"My father is ninety-six years old. He is the founder of Herman Miller, and much of the value system and impounded energy of the company is a part of his contribution. In the furniture industry of the 1920's the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors, but by pulleys from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was run by the steam engine. The steam engine got its steam from the boiler. The boiler, in our case, got its fuel from the sawdust and other waste coming out of the machine room---a beautiful cycle.

The millwright was the person who oversaw that cycle and on whom the entire activity of the operation depended. He was a key person.

One day the millwright died.

My father, being a young manager at the time, did not particularly know what he should do when a key person died, but thought he ought to go visit the family. He went to the house and was invited to join the family in the living room. There was some awkward conversation---the kind with which many of us are familiar.

The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally, he agreed. She went into another room, came back with a bound book, and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

It is now nearly sixty years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet who did millwright's work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?

In our effort to understand corporate life, what is it we should learn from this story? In addition to all of the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people's gifts and talents and skills."1

Knowing that this spirit resides in all of us is to understand the essence of life that transcends the ordinary. Perhaps this concept is meeting with growing interest because the demands of "the global marketplace" and our electronic world are pushing us to the outer limits of mental endurance. The hectic pace of our daily life may have us questioning its meaning, and so we see a rising interest in spirituality.

I think it not a coincidence that while writing this article, in the mail came a catalogue for audiocassettes with its cover entitled Profound Spiritual Experiences: Discover a proven system for accessing your soul and entering a deeper spiritual dimension. In the eight or nine years I have been receiving this catalogue, never have I seen this topic on the cover. So what does all this mean with respect to our businesses? Some may think the subjects of work and spirituality to be polar opposites, one having no bearing on the other.

Perhaps the answer is best summarized by executive advisor John Scherer:

"The quality of work we do cannot be separated from the quality of 'self' we manage to create in our lives. If this is accurate it would have at least two important implications for every company.

1. Organizations have a vested interest in nurturing the human spirit of the workforce, since the state of workers' spirits has a direct bearing upon the quality of their work. And because leaders act as "speed governors" on the rest of the organization, it will help businesses to have people at the top who are awakening their own spirits.

2. Work that injures the human spirit, even if it's profitable, isn't good work in the end; companies ought to change that work as quickly as possible, because the forces of the marketplace (or the forces of the universe or whatever you want to call it) tend to punish soul-killing labor out of existence anyway.

And so to the extent that companies start caring about the quality of the inner lives of those who serve their customers, and start acting on that concern, they will inevitably transform the world at work."2

In contemplating the workplace of the future, it is tempting to imagine a place where work (if we still call it that) is performed in an environment that somehow nourishes the inner spirit---an environment where leaders know that only through the nourishment of that inner spirit is energy released. This will be a new place indeed.


"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Dorothy

"Science and technology do not tell us what life means. We learn that through literature, the arts, and spirituality." Megatrends 2000

"If the nature of work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body." J.C. Kumarappa, Philosopher and Economist

"Work on the construction of an ideal world has been temporarily halted, due to a shortage of idealists." Ashleigh Brilliant