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The Soul at Work

by Roger Lewin


What About People?
During our research on management guided by the principles of complexity science, we attended many conferences, which typically focused on computer algorithms that made difficult operational problems tractable. Time after time, at the end of the day we would hear people say, “This all has great potential and it will be important in business, we know that. But what about me? What about people?”

Yes, what about people? “Business is about people” has been bandied around for some time, and yet rarely addressed with any human depth. Consequently, the feeling of not being valued is pervasive in the business world, and a few writers recognize the fact. “Too many people feel insecure, threatened, and unappreciated in their jobs,”(1) writes Tom Morris, a philosopher and business consultant. “Overall job satisfaction and corporate morale in most places may be at an all time low.”(2) Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of The Fifth Discipline, notes that the prevailing mechanistic model of business encourages managers to see people as machines, not as people. “We deeply resent being made machinelike, in order to fit into the machine,”(3) he says. Henry Ford once said, “How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?” A manager in today’s knowledge-based economy might paraphrase this: “How come when I want a mind, I get a heart as well?”And how come there commonly continues to exist a denial in the business mind, a stark omission of the importance of people and valuing them for not only the revenues they bring in, but simply as human beings? How come we refuse to see the obvious–that when people are treated as replaceable parts, as objects to control, are taught to be compliant, are used as fuel for the existing system–that inevitably you are going to have an organization that is fraught with frustration, anger, and isolation, which ultimately is detrimental to the business?

The trauma of downsizing and the importance of trust
Even Michael Hammer, one of the developers of reengineering, eventually came to realize that management is not just about organizational structures or process teams. In an interview in The Wall Street Journal, he admitted that in his enthusiasm to make companies more efficient and profitable he forgot about people. “I wasn’t smart enough about that,” he conceded. “I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficiently appreciative of the human dimension. I’ve learned that’s critical.”(4) Trust is critical if organizations are to excel, as the European business consultant Charles Handy argues forcefully in his recent book The Hungry Spirit. And trust was one of the major casualties in the rush to downsize in the name of reengineering. More than 70 percent of U.S. companies are struggling with low morale and lack of trust, principally as a result of the trauma of downsizing, according to a 1997 Wharton School survey.(5) The same is true in Europe.

“In the living company, the essence of the underlying contract is mutual trust,” says Arie de Geus, a former senior executive of Royal Dutch/Shell. “Before they will give more, people need to know that the community is interested in them as individuals.”(6) An important reason why some companies fail, he says, is that “managers focus exclusively on producing goods and services and forget that the organization is a community of human beings that is in business–any business–to stay alive.”(7) It is common sense that if people are treated as machines, not as people, they are unlikely to give loyalty and trust–they will not give of their best. And yet, unfortunately, to use Voltaire’s phrase, “common sense is not so common.”

Many companies that are anything but human-oriented in their management practices survive and even thrive, of course–for a time. “If you’ve drained the tank of human goodwill and motivation, you can continue to coast downhill for a while, even at a pretty rapid clip,” observes Tom Morris, “but heaven help you if you encounter any big bumps in the road or the competition forces you into an uphill struggle.”(8) Senge is even more emphatic about the matter. “As we enter the twenty-first century, it is timely, perhaps even critical, that we recall what human beings have understood for a very long time,” he says: “that working together can indeed be a deep source of life meaning. Anything less is just a job.”(9)

Work can be more than just a job
It is possible for people to be valued for themselves in the workplace, not just their function; for people’s souls to be nurtured and allowed to emerge where they work. In short, it is possible for work to be more than just a job, that work can be fulfilling and a life-enhancing experience, with all its trials, tribulations, and thrills. This is precisely what we observed for the most part in the companies we talked to.

To the manager who says, “This all sounds soft and unbusinesslike,” beware: these companies are all very successful in traditional bottom line terms, not despite being human-oriented, but rather, as many of the CEOs we talked with argue, because of it. To the executive who says, “Okay, that sounds easy, I’ll try it,” beware: it’s not easy; it’s hard, perhaps the hardest of all management practices. And to the manager who says, “That sounds all well and good, but I can’t afford to spend time on relationships,” beware: you are not getting the best out of your company. In fact, it’s more a question whether you can afford not to. It doesn’t have to be either/or, a dichotomy between money and people. In fact, it can’t be. Our world is too complex.

The Soul at Work
What is the soul at work? In complex adaptive systems, how we interact and the kinds of relationships we form has everything to do with what kind of culture emerges, has everything to do with the emergence of creativity, productivity, and innovation. When more interactions are care full rather than care-less in an organization, a community of care and connection develops, creating a space for the soul at work to emerge.

“The soul at work” is a double entendre: it is at once the individual’s soul being allowed to be present in the workplace; and it is the emergence of a collective soul of the organization.

We witnessed the individual soul at workwhere many people, once disheartened at work, evolved to being engaged in meaningful work. When the individual soul is engaged, people naturally want to add value, are willing to go the distance and devote time to endeavors they feel, regardless of how small, are worthwhile. Many people feel lost in their organizations, feel apart from them rather than a part of them. Many see themselves in a system in which they have little or no influence. Too often we heard front-line people, when reflecting on former places of work, say, “Nobody ever asked me what I thought, and it was hardly a possibility that they would act on it if they did.” The business mind that becomes myopic, singularly valuing the financial bottom line and techniques to boost it, ultimately dehumanizes the organization, and, self-protectively, people disconnect from their soul so as not be exploited. People suffer and their organizations suffer.

Tapping into the web of connection
Actually, most people want to be part of their organization; they want to know the organization’s purpose; they want to make a difference. When the individual soul is connected to the organization, people become connected to something deeperthe desire to contribute to a larger purpose, to feel they are part of a greater whole, a web of connection. When this context develops, people begin to openly acknowledge the need for others, to see their interdependence, and their desire to belongtheir tribal instinct awakens.

The soul at work is also a collective soul. We listened to the collective soul at workthe transformation of the protean spirit of the organization in all its shades and huesfrom trauma, to hope, to infinite possibilities. The collective soul at work is a journey of aligning individual abilities and values with the collective, shared purpose, an unfolding identity that is constructed and reconstructed continually by the people who are part of the system. And it is this collective soul at work that is most capable of intelligent, humane action that benefits the whole.

Engage the feedback loops
How, then, to engage the soul at work? There are no simple solutions. But it begins with altering our perspective. To engage the soul is to see people as people, not as employees. It is to assume an intention of goodwill on their part, and that it is better to err in trusting too much than not enough. It is in recognizing a job well done, not just with money but also with a genuine appreciation. It is to remember that people are inventive. It is to believe in them, not just the numbers. This perspective affects the quality of the interactions in the system, creating positive rather than negative feedback loops; that is, creating trust and commitment, not suspicion and disconnection. It is these feedback loops that can transform the system.

To engage the soul at work is to realize that talking to people, listening to them, responding to them is not a waste of time. Rather, this is creating a context where people are more willing to change and to adapt, which in turn makes the organization more adaptable. This human centered context allows people to further the aims of the organization while retaining their personal integrity and gaining greater personal fulfillment.

(1) T. Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Henry Holt, 1997, page ix.
(2) Ibid, page 7.
(3) Foreward to A. de Geus, The Living Company, Harvard Business School Press, 1997, page x.
(4) J.B. White, “Re-Engineering Gurus Take Steps to Remodel Their Stalling Vehicles,” The Wall Street Journal, November 26, 1996, page 1.
(5) G. Koretz, “The Downside of Downsizing,” Business Week, April 28, 1997, page 26.
(6) A. de Geus, “The Living Company,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 1997, pp52-59, page 58.
(7) Ibid, page 52.
(8) T. Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Henry Holt, 1997, page xiii.
(9) P. Senge, Foreward to A. de Geus, The Living Company, Harvard Business School Press, 1997, page xi.

Roger Lewin, PhD is a prize-winning author of 17 science books, including the acclaimed Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. He speaks frequently at national conferences on complexity science and business. Contact Roger at 617-492-3082, or [email protected]

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