Thursday, November 13, 2008

Language for bringing our deepest inspiration to work

A couple days ago one of my sisters said to me, "You know, I have no idea what you are talking about [in this blog or when I talk about the spirit of institutions]." She was curious and kind about it, but she was also letting me know that I haven't found language to connect what I'm drawn to with where my sister is coming from. I know that she isn't alone.

As I've been doing interviews with people this fall about spiritually grounded leadership, I've been listening for different language to describe what I think of as the spirituality of institutions.

This week I was happy to do an interview with Bob Wahlstedt, who co-founded a manufacturing company in the Twin Cities, Reell Precision Manufacturing. Bob was the co-CEO of Reell for almost 30 years. The company started with a direction statement that included, “Reell is committed to following the will of God.”

The idea of secular organizations following God's will can excite and motivate me, if I trust the values and discernment of that organization. To many others, the idea of a business following God's will is either meaningless or offensive.

For the past 38 years at Reell, they have been applying the spirit behind that language--they ask people that work there to bring their deepest inspirations and motivations to work. The language of their direction statement has evolved, but it is still explicit about following God's purpose, while also welcoming a diversity of spiritual perspectives and traditions. In practice, this orientation has been expressed through an approach to management that Reell calls "teach, equip, trust," which they contrast with "command, direct, control" methods of management. Workers on their assembly lines are typically hired as entry-level assembly workers, but they learn every stop on the assembly line, from scheduling to quality checks. Their products are shipped only when the line worker signs off — without inspection other than periodic audits.

Here are a couple quotes from my conversation with Bob Wahlstedt that I found especially helpful in thinking about how we use spiritual and religious language in the workplace:

“What we call God is an image, not actually God. It is far less than God. It is idolatry to worship that image. Anyone who is discerning meaning and purpose and discerning right and wrong is following a spiritual path.”

"We need to quit excluding the spiritual insights and motivations of the people who work in our organizations. People exclude it because it can be divisive, but it also pushes away a great resource."

There is much more to Reell's story that I've savored, such as how they tell employees that they should put family responsibilities above work. Here is a paper that tells more of the company's story.

With each conversation I have about this topic, I'm slowly learning about language (and the limits of language) to describe how we can cultivate organizations that bring out our best selves. I welcome your questions and suggestions, like my sister's, to help me down that path.


natcase said...

A bigger query of which this is perhaps a part:

"What are we excluding from our professional lives, what is the cost of that exclusion, and how can we include it?"

Where your work seems to be finding those who, in the case of spiritual perspectives, are consciously including something that is customarily excluded.

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks, Nat. Yes, I think that is an important and related broader query. Things like playfulness, friendship, poetry might also be things we exclude from our professional lives. So might cursing, violence, and proselytizing. Looking at the costs and benefits of what we include and exclude in our work lives seems like a good exercise.

Michael Bischoff said...

In thinking more about Nat's comment, I've been remembering a study that Rabbi Michael Lerner did in the 1980s about work and family life. Here's a summary of their findings:

"Lerner and his colleagues at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health interviewed and worked in therapy groups with thousands of working people. This research revealed that socially meaningless work was a major cause of stress, and that “most people have a real need for meaning and purpose in their lives, a meaning and purpose that could transcend the selfishness and materialism of the competitive marketplace and root them in something with transcendent significance.” Lerner suggests that Abraham Maslow was off the mark in suggesting “that we must first satisfy our material needs and only then address our ‘higher’ needs.” For Lerner, the spiritual is also basic: “Rather than thinking of material needs as the foundation and the spiritual dimension as a kind of accessory, we should understand that spiritual needs are equally real and equally essential to our being.”"

Liz Opp said...

The idea of mixing playfulness with your (chosen?) profession mirrors a story I heard on the radio tonight, about interpreting your PhD thesis through dance.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Tom Allen said...

I find that trying to define spirituality is more complicated than it is worth. It seems to lead inevitably to division and doctrinal differences. Instead, I think pointing to the universal human experience of spirtiuality, and asking people to talk about those experiences in whatever language works for them, is more helpful.

So, I get nervous when I hear a business using "God" language. I believe it is way too easy to have one way of understanding that begin to dominate and oppress people, the very way thing that we are trying to avoid.

I think that story telling about what people perceive to have been spiritual for them makes the most sense.

Tom Allen

Michael Bischoff said...

I agree, Tom, that defining spirituality narrowly within a business or other organization can be dangerous territory. At the same time, I've been looking for for language that points to "to the universal human experience of spirituality." Here are two definitions of spirituality that I've come across recently and appreciated:
* Sources of creativity (Otto Scharmer)
* Our eternal yearning to connect with something beyond our egos (Parker Palmer)

I want to find ways to balance what is broad and inclusive with what is also meaningful and deep.

Monty said...

Well, Michael, there's no one like a sister to challenge us! It can be difficult to put spirituality into words but I think you are doing a good job. Reading about Reell and its Mission Statement shows that there can be dignity in the workplace and individuals can be respected for the inherent worth that all of us have as children of God. You are raising our awareness of institutions and people that truly value spirituality in our daily lives. Thank you!