Share |

That’s the spirit

Gail Regan is president of Cara Holdings and the author of The Evil Governor, an audiobook and case study on corporate governance in family business. (It is available from Davey Productions, 95 Rumsey Road, Toronto, Canada M4G 1P1.)

The practice of mixing spirituality and morality persists today in definitions of spirituality in business. Gail Regan examines the ambivalent nature of corporate social responsibility

I define spirituality as the experience of wonder. In a spiritual moment, feeling connected to the universe in an overwhelmed yet fulfilled way I can gracefully accept my insignificance in the vastness of creation. Spiritual experience contrasts with mundane experience, such as feeling hungry, tired, bored, irritated and impatient. The mundane has to do with me and my needs as I address my discontent. In spiritual experience, I feel centred and replete.

Some people tend to the spiritual and some are very mundane. I think though that everyone has the capacity for spirituality – it is a human capacity that can be developed or ignored. Similarly human activity varies in the extent that it elicits the experience of spirituality. For example, religious services are designed to do so, while cooking does not particularly have this purpose. Nevertheless there may be the potential for spiritual experience in mundane activity.

Consider those who own or work for mundane businesses. Where the business itself has as its purpose the provision of spiritual experiences – film, theatre, leadership training, therapy, visual art – there is a variation that qualifies what I have to say. For the moment think widgets, utilities or cleaning services.

As a child, I had spiritual experiences in my school's chapel, but my teachers contaminated it by invoking God as their deputy for social conformity. "Don't steal, God is watching." Adults did not seem able to grasp that I thought stealing was wrong in itself, that you shouldn't, because writ large a society that tolerated stealing would be perfectly dreadful. In my kid world, adults seemed to believe that the conforming children were more spiritual than the naughty ones whether they were or not.

Giving something back
The practice of mixing spirituality and morality persists today in definitions of spirituality in business. For many, it is corporate social responsibility (CSR), giving something back. The corporation that is connected to its community, that gives to charity and encourages its staff to volunteer in the community, is regarded as a spiritual corporation. In Canada when a corporation "enters the spirit of giving" by allocating 1% of pre-tax profit to charity, it qualifies as an Imagine corporation and may use the Imagine logo of a rainbow in its annual report.

I feel ambivalent about this approach. On the one hand, I still think my childhood experience is correct – mixing in morality contaminates spirituality and ends up being manipulative. On the other hand, my adult mind sees the wisdom of doing so.

Suppose there is a child who claims profound spiritual experiences but his or her behaviour is deviant – the child spits, punches, swears, steals yet has religious fervour and visions of God. Such a child would be seen as demonic, possessed, mad, autistic or character disordered, according to the wisdom of the day. Suppose that such a deviant child has some sort of transformative experience and now he or she is good. The child has a friendly smile, gentle touch, sweet language, deference to others, respect for their property and a less personal view of God. Given the problematic start, the deviance may not have gone away. It may show up later in obsession and reaction formation – a person with such a childhood may dwell on thoughts of crime and be quick to harshly judge those who act out. Offence will be taken easily and the person will feel unhappy most of the time. If he or she is religious, conventional religious culture may reinforce the pattern.

Socially responsible
Enter spirituality. Spiritual experience may provide a sense of well-being of the universe, of its natural order. This sense may enable our troubled adult to work through pious morality to a more self-forgiving, inclusive stance and a happier life. Spirituality contends with conventional morality moving the self to empathy for others and fulfilment. In contrast, an overwhelming, belittling experience that seems spiritual but really isn't could return our obsessive, reactive adult to disrespect, violence and depravity. Such an experience is not spirituality. Spirituality, morality and higher function are in harness. Consequently, I have some sympathy for the CSR approach – it provides the conventional morality that permits real business spirituality to emerge.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who govern businesses to understand when their organisation deviates from the morality of business and to get it back on track. For one reason or another this is quite difficult to do and organisations derail. Directors see too late.

For the most part though mundane organisations muddle through, even though the potential for total failure is always there. Businesses are like deviant children who have recovered to goodness and piety. They have internalised enough of corporate morality to stay on track but they have not spiritually transcended the limitations of conventional constraints. The seeds of destruction have not gone away, nor is function anywhere near optimal. If the business can find its spirituality, further progress is possible. If not, there is drift and risk of failure.

Take the commercial moral principle 'Invest for productive purposes'. We know what happens to mundane corporations that do not. But take the corporation that year after year makes investments that on average earn the cost of capital, more or less. They are good businesses but not great businesses. Entrapped in their silos and budgets, slaves to growth needs and internal politics, they do not earn extraordinary returns for their shareholders. If transcendence occurs, if the leaders of the business instil a culture that values the preciousness of capital so that the corporation's projects always earn more than the cost of capital, then excess funds would be returned to shareholders for redeployment in other productive purposes, including projects in the Third World that would relieve its poverty, or projects in underdeveloped areas of developed nations that would relieve theirs. If mundane business underwent spiritual conversion to investment in productive enterprise only, the world would be transformed to a higher level of function.

Consider 'Promote comfort and convenience'. The world's service providers deliver consumer surplus. (The services they provide exceed, even if marginally, what the customer is willing to pay.) Service providers deliver a value proposition or else. Shoshana Zuboff has written a book The Support Economy that examines the terrible sense of frustration and depletion that most consumers suffer. Supposing they didn't. Suppose that corporations could really connect with their customers, delivering precisely the comfort and convenience, the prompt problem solutions, that they need at very low prices. What a happier place the world would be.

The process of getting there could be mundane. Perhaps it takes the installation of workable IT systems combined with distribution at a level of military precision. Most corporations have not activated themselves to achieve this. A transformative spiritual vision is necessary to cut through the conventional systems that hold service back.

Spiritual transformation
Remember though that there are always the seeds of destruction. A service provider that promises too much risks discomforting and inconveniencing its customers. Hence it uses controls to ensure service levels are adequate. These may reinforce the current level of function, ensuring there is no slippage to deviance but hampering progress to greatness. Spiritual transformation risks deviance and is no easy task. But what a different world it would be if corporations could really love, empathically love, their customers and translate this into action.

Suppose there is a spiritually transformed corporation that only invests for productive purposes and focuses exclusively on providing comfort and convenience to its customers. I do not see the profit and core competence thereby created as direct transformers of the surrounding society. It is the indirect benefits – the re-invested profit, the energised customers – that transform the world. The purpose of the corporation is to make money and please customers. It takes spirituality to do this at a high level – but the products or services of the high performing mundane corporation are not spiritual.

However, because all people have a spiritual capacity and all activities have the potential for a spiritual dimension, my point is sometimes hard to grasp. Hence there is a tendency, especially among owners and professional management, but even spontaneously arising from employees, to believe that their mundane organisation has a spiritual purpose. In the 1980s, the Canadian Red Cross believed this about itself, could not admit error and infected thousands of Canadians with Aids and Hepatitis C. In the 1990s the government of Ontario struggled with Ontario 'Hydro'. (Most of the power is nuclear.) The province, the manufacturing centre of Canada, depends on this power and it is widely believed that Ontario nuclear power is safe, cheap, efficient, greening and good industrial policy. A study revealed that nuclear workers at Hydro had aligned themselves with this belief and had more prestige than other workers. They had become a 'cult'. This is not spirituality. This is an ideology based on vested interest. Spirituality in this case was in the government-appointed official who commissioned an independent study, learned that there were problems and acted to solve them by closing the problematic nuclear plants.

Real spirituality in business contends with conventional thought to reach a higher level of function. Just as potentially deviant individuals may undergo a spiritual-seeming but belittling experience that returns them to acting out, there are 'spirtual-looking' forces in business that are self-justifying and lead to chaos. Beware alignments and the ideology that fuels them.

I see the force that leads mundane companies to focus on increasing return on investment and pleasing customers as a spiritual force. I believe this force could redeem the world by ending poverty. The false god of self-serving ideology slows the force. But more often the love of perks opposes it.

Perks or greed
For business it is about perks. People want and invest for the money. All businesses have hierarchies of individuals extracting perks and, where the perks are good, there will be resistance to transformation.

I used to think the love of perks was simply greed, a force of deviance to be controlled. Then I read socio-biological literature and discovered the embedded nature of status seeking. Our genes program us to seek perks. We are made this way. This implies that to focus a business on profit and customer service it is necessary to find spirituality in the part of human nature that loves perks.

The spiritual work that has helped me the most with this issue is Stephen Mitchell's commentary on the biblical Book of Job. Job is a strong, pious man depressed over his losses. He has a spiritual experience where he sees nature in its roughness as God's work. He feels wonder for the universe as it is, comforted in his own unimportance and recovers his health, wealth and family life.

As applied to mundane business I believe it is the Jobian acceptance of nature that is the spiritual force. Wonder at human motivation and acquiescence with the little that can be done to change it are the spiritual stances that best guide those who approve the incentive systems, the systems essential for harnessing the love of perks to the purpose of the enterprise. Compensation committees can learn from the lessons of Job.

I have been writing with mundane businesses in mind. Where the purpose of the enterprise is spiritual transformation, my remarks should be modified.

The film The Magdalene Sisters illustrates my point. Twentieth century ­Ireland as a society had difficulty integrating the sexuality of women into its way of life. Attractive young women were targeted, rejected and confined in institutions owned by the Magdalenes whose purpose was to transform them into inhibited people who ideally would chose a religious life. The film portrays the sisters as occasionally succeeding in this purpose. But they also had a commercial interest in a laundry business. Profits were large and invested productively, sustaining the enterprise. But this wise use of capital, far from leading to good, poisoned the organisation. The clients were imprisoned, enslaved and abused in a shocking fashion. Love of money corrupts an organisation with a spiritual purpose.

Jane Jacobs demonstrates that there is a different system of survival, the 'guardian syndrome' that has a set of moral principles different from the commercial syndrome. (Guardian institutions defend territory and transmit cultural heritage.) When guardians adapt values from the commercial syndrome, as the Magdalene Sisters did, the result is degradation. The key to goodness is to differentiate these syndromes, applying the relevant values as appropriate.

Common sense indicates that it is easy to sort guardian institutions from commercial ones and appropriate values are not difficult to select. My experience tells me that business life is more complicated. For mundane businesses are owned, they are someone's culture and guardian values will always to some extent apply. As guardian institutions in the business of transmitting spiritual experience they should avoid letting the money corrupt. Businesses of passion march to a different spiritual drummer.

Click here >>