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.