Bringing Soul into the Workplace

Picture1Have you ever worked in a job, a team or an organisation which left you feeling as if you are a cog in a large machine, a resource to be used up and spat out when there is no more foreseeable value? Have you ever felt a deep sense of disconnection between what you sense you are on this planet to do, and what your daily job is asking you to do? Have you ever come back from leave and noticed what seems like numbness, anxiety or even insanity in the people surrounding you?

If so, you are not alone. Many people spend large portions of their working lives feeling this way, yet with seemingly little way out with mortgages, school fees and other commitments. While the risks of pursuing your own path are significant, the costs of not following your passion can be a living death – a sense of emptiness and loneliness which gradually builds and can manifest in a variety of unhealthy ways. Physical illness, addictions such as alcohol, smoking or caffeine, or erratic behaviour and debilitating moods are some examples. Looking at this list, I just realised that at a low point in my career I got a tick in each box – not sure it’s something to be proud of.

Yet there are also organisations that are truly joyful places to work that create great value. Raj Sisodia, one of the founders of the Conscious Capitalism movement, identified in his book, Firms of Endearment, many organisations that are creating working environments with soul. At the heart of these organisations is the honouring of all stakeholders – shareholders, customers, staff and communities.

To explore what can be done to develop more soulful places to work it is useful to look at some of the causes of workplace malaise.

Economic enviroment – almost all the learning and development specialists I know or collaborate with share one fundamental experience of the recent years – few organisations are seeking aspirational leadership development or strategic development. The emphasis is on cost reduction, embedding competency models for expected ways of behaving and on basic management capability. While these are all important, they focus on stability and homogeneity without addressing the needs of growth, diversity and adapting to change.

Lack of care – in many organisations, there is commonly a sense of prevailing sadness, fatigue and cynicism. A sense that the organisation doesn’t care for or value the individual’s contribution and that most senior people are out of touch with what it is like to work at the coal face. In some instances, the senior management rhetoric espouses the need for cost cutting, reducing bonuses and downsizing, while the most senior people maintain excessive bonuses or are rewarded even further through these programs.

The consequence of the ‘more with less’ philosophy in the more technical and process oriented areas is significantly increased volumes of work that creates such an emphasis on output that development, feedback and connection to meaning are buried beneath the frenzy.

Paradigm blindness – many organisations espouse the need for stability regardless of how affected the organisation or team is by external forces. The more the organisation craves certainty to placate market participants and to demonstrate its capacity to achieve, the greater will be its denial of the need for change. For example, as practising actuaries, there may be pressure brought to bear to set assumptions at a level that allows for a steady profit release or incremental increase in value. Over time, artificial stability reduces organisational resilience and increases the likelihood of systemic failure.

Incapacity to allow individuals to bring their whole selves to work – the paradigm of ‘you’re only as good as your last project’ builds short-term focus on excellence… and longer term fatigue. The sense of always being on probation ultimately weighs down the human spirit. People often desire to be seen as perfect to protect their hard fought reputation, which means hiding the imperfections and denying the need for development. As Leonard Cohen suggests, no light can get in if you forever cover over the cracks.

Disconnection from personal meaning and purpose – the intent of organisational mission and vision statements is to provide clarity of direction and engage people in the purpose of the organisation. Yet if this mission or vision is incongruent with the individual’s values or provides no space for their own expression of what is important to them, people will feel alienated and disconnected.

Asymmetry of the contract between the individual and organisation – recently a colleague shared with me a conflict they faced. In their organisation, managers were asked to commit heart and soul to the vision and strategy without any certainty as to whether they and / or their teams would be part of the organisation going forward.

There are moments in my career where I dreaded going back to work the next day, to deliver unrealistic deadlines and produce meaningless reports which few people ever read and which barely cast a breath in the organisational hurricane. For me personally, this sensitised me to what it is like to feel powerless and worthless and it led me towards my current work, in supporting organisations to build structures, processes and mindsets that allow individuals to bring their innate wisdom and compassion into their day-to-day roles.

Call me an idealist, but I truly believe that the level of pain being experienced in organisations will lead to a significant shift in cultures towards a more humanistic approach. The following are some ways of creating more soulful workplaces.

Dan Pink*  has completed extensive research on what motivates people in the workforce. And it’s not money. His findings are that while bonuses are effective mechanisms for rudimentary tasks and roles, there is a huge body of evidence that larger bonuses actually lead to a REDUCTION in effectiveness for more complex tasks. His research suggests that excessive emphasis on bonuses introduces a level of anxiety around performance that inhibits creativity, focuses on the short term and is more likely to lead to unethical or highly risky behaviour.

Pink found that the major things that motivate people in the workforce, once they have sufficient salaries to allow security, are Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy. Working on something they truly believe in, having the opportunity every week to do something they are good at or can improve at, and a healthy balance between having some personal freedom and personal accountability.

David Whyte, best-selling author of The heart aroused – preserving the soul in corporate America is a poet who has been exploring themes of soul in the workplace for over two decades. He believes there are several ways to enable the preservation or thriving of soul in the workplace.

  • Set boundaries on behaviours rather than deep prescriptive expectations. This allows individual freedom within these boundaries yet helps to shape expectations and sets clarity on what is not acceptable.
  • Create some distance from an unpleasant event before taking action, i.e. taking a broader perspective, a third or fourth person perspective. Seek the positive intent of other parties to this event.
  • Design organisational structures and processes that mimic robust ecosystems. These include encouraging diversity of ideas and styles, and honouring individuals by providing them with opportunities to work on what they are most passionate about.

The best test of the ideas in this article is your own personal experiences of work and how strongly or otherwise they resonate with the themes outlined here. As managers, as actuarial specialists, as people engaged in creating our own livelihoods, how important is bringing soul into the workplace for you?

A video outlining Dan pink’s research on motivation can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6xApnuFjjc

This article was originally published at © The Institute of Actuaries of Australia

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About the author

Andrew partners with clients in building effective leadership cultures, through developing leadership capacity at the individual, team and organisational level. He supports clients to address their business strategies through developing effective leadership mindsets and practices. More>

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