By Tuomo Peltonen
Interest in the role of spirituality in organisational life has been growing rapidly in the past few decades. Numerous books and articles have explored the benefits of spirituality and religion for the effectiveness, well-being and ethicality of the modern workplace. There is both an expanding academic discourse on the meaning of spirituality at work, as well as a related movement among the practitioners towards exploring and pursuing various forms of spirituality in organisational contexts.
However, the newly emerging spiritual discourse seems to have generated a whole set of open questions regarding the position and relevance of the workplace spirituality movement. What is exactly is meant by spirituality and how it should be assessed in relation to organisational theories and philosophies?
Historically, the relationship between management and religiosity has generally been seen as antagonistic. Modern management practice arose in tandem with the ascent of the rationalistic approach to societal issue, intimately tied to the rise of rational modernity and the secularisation of reason. More recently, however, the strict separation of spirituality and organisation has been challenged. It has become obvious that different spiritual and religious convictions continue to inform organisational behaviour and identity across contexts.
The recent flourishing of spirituality at work is informed by the changing religious landscape of Western societies. Contrary to the earlier secularisation thesis that hypothesised that developed industrial countries would gradually but inevitably renounce religious motives and beliefs, contemporary social life is characterised by a multitude of world views, both secular and spiritual. This so-called “post-secular” society embraces many different forms of religiosity, spanning from strictly scientific and atheistic positions to new spiritual movements to traditional institutionalised traditions of faith.
It is in this diverse context that today’s organisations are witnessing new types of amalgamation of work and spirituality. Spirituality is understood as a worldview or conviction that can be pursued parallel to the largely rationalistic mainstream of management thinking. Spirituality as practiced, for example, through well-being exercises like yoga and meditation is seen as having the potential to improve organisational performance and decision-making, while simultaneously introducing a holistic and ethical component to everyday organisational life.
The concurrent orientation of individuals and groups interested in spirituality could be characterised as “spiritual but not religious”. Spirituality denotes a non-denominational commitment to a heterogeneous set of beliefs about the sanctity of life, the need for personal growth and the nurturing of mindfulness. There is a conscious attempt to side-line the traditional theological concerns with the supernatural sources of spirituality and the related questions about the ultimate issues of existence. In this sense, new spirituality is closer to the Asian religious traditions and their emulations in the Western spiritualist movements.
As the new spirituality discourse avoids engagement with the traditional concerns of the monotheistic religions, it occasionally makes bold claims about the transformative powers of spirituality. In particular, within the academic discussions one can find the idea that spiritual awareness can lead to social and ethical change in organisations. Spiritual enlightenment is argued to pave way for new realities that are more just and sustainable than those inherent within the prevailing materialist ideologies. In this context, spiritual growth is commended as an essential ingredient in developing leaders who will be better equipped to confront the ethical challenges of the contemporary global capitalism. Spirituality becomes political activism.
However, the pursuit of non-theistic commitments together with a keen intent on establishing new transformative and progressive programmes can be problematic from the perspective of the more established philosophical and theological understandings. The long tradition of Western spiritual philosophical thinking started with Plato’s writings about the role of other-worldly Forms or Ideas in the making of ethically sound communities. Plato argued that the real source of wisdom and order resides in the eternal Forms like Truth, Beauty and Justice. The spiritual quest of citizens or employees is to contemplate the other-worldly Forms instead of investing in empirical or material matters.
Platonic spirituality suggests that instead of trying to empty the mind from unnecessary thoughts, the spiritual path to enlightenment is more akin to a return to the spiritual source. Spirituality at work would similarly be focused on nurturing the existing spiritual intuitions rather than cleansing the mind from any thoughts as in the contemporary spirituality movement. Plato’s spirituality is targeted at following or participating in the spiritual ideals.
Plato’s spiritual philosophy can be difficult to adapt to today’s modern realities. His notion of the hierarchical society, with spiritually advanced philosopher-kings in the reign of the communities, appears as outdated for contemporary liberal sensitivities. In this regard, the work of political philosopher Eric Voegelin offers useful extensions to Platonic spirituality.
Voegelin argued that spirituality is to be understood as specific religious experiences that valorise our habits of sense-making and thinking. He was less interested in the spiritual education of wise citizens and leaders, and more attuned to the everyday mystic experiences. For Voegelin, spirituality can help in our perceptual thinking and decision-making by reminding about the deeper values and ideals. Like Plato, he saw the spiritual ideals or Forms as the cornerstones for the constitution of an ordered and just community, but his primary concern was on the enriching of our everyday consciousness with a spiritual sensitivity.
Plato’s and Voegelin’s spirituality is attuned to the other-worldly aspects of spirituality. For them, human actors occupy an in-between position between the divine and the secular realities. This insight leads to the proposal that organisational actors should continually balance their concrete situations with a spiritual sensitivity to the more enduring ideals. In this sense, their views challenge the dominant approach of the spirituality movement in two ways. Firstly, spirituality is concerned here with the other-worldly or supernatural values or ideals. Merely attuning to the holistic dynamics of the existing properties of the human and natural reality misses the real potential of spiritual enlightenment. Secondly, the other-worldly sources of spiritual enlightenment, the Forms of Plato’s philosophy, cannot be directly transmitted to our temporal contexts to inform a secular perfection. In other words, spirituality cannot sustain a heaven on earth, contrary to what some spirituality writers are implying.
Taken together, the works of Plato and Voegelin highlight both the possibilities and limitations inherent in the emerging organisational spirituality movement. Generally speaking, spirituality raises significant questions related to the meaning of work and business. It can offer resources for a more ethically sustainable and harmonious organisational forms. At the same, the field of spirituality and religiousness is replete with diverge understandings of the sources and consequences of spirituality. Different perspectives on the nature of spiritual reality and its consequences for organisational and leadership development lead to radically diverging practical implications. Therefore, it is important to recognise exactly which spirituality is endorsed, and how the chosen understanding envisions the role and potential of a spiritual way of life in organisational development.
Tuomo Peltonen is professor of organisation and management at Åbo Akademi Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences, Finland. His current research focuses on history and philosophy of organisation theory, wisdom and spirituality.