Increasingly, religious beliefs and practices of employees are becoming more evident in the workplace. Religious diversity and concepts of spirituality are more prevalent in organizational settings.
Talking about God at work is no longer taboo. In recent years, leaders seem to feel more and more comfortable mentioning spirituality in the workplace. Some even say that spirituality in the workplace is exploding. By spirituality, we refer to the force that gives meaning to our lives (our private activities) contrasted with religion, which is often seen as the organized, institutional membership.
The notion of a purpose-driven life is not new, since authors such as Rick Warren and Stephen Covey have written several best-selling books addressing this topic. But actually mentioning a higher purpose or spirituality or religion at work is something gaining in popularity.
In fact, I’ve noticed that increasingly more executives have brought up their attempts to work at companies that are consistent with their own values and spiritual beliefs. In the past, they might have been uncomfortable sharing such personal beliefs, but for some of them, they want to share their views.
I have also known some executives who have left high-paying successful jobs to work at other companies that are better aligned with their own personal values and religious beliefs (as a better fit). For some, there is a greater desire to not only work at values-based organizations, but to serve as spiritual leaders or role models for others in the organization.
More and more authors also have written books citing leadership lessons from various religious books (e.g., the Bible) or leaders (e.g., leadership lessons from Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, Buddha, etc). These include lessons about creating and communicating a vision among followers, recruiting followers and forming a team, developing an action plan and setting clear goals, being open and transparent, being inclusive of all types of people.
Part of the reason that religion is playing a greater role in the U.S. workplace is that people are spending more and more time at work. As a result, the workplace has become for some people, a source of emotional connectivity. Workers are searching for a deeper meaning for life at work. In addition, workers increasingly perceive that greed (and subsequently poor ethical choices) is a dominant characteristic of U.S. business leaders.
Employees are questioning if more wealth is really necessary for themselves or others, and instead, they increasingly believe that happiness is attained by living a “balanced” life, which means putting aspects of faith into their lives. More immigrants also bring a diversity of religions and various views and a feeling that it is okay to bring up religion in the workplace.
So, what does it mean to be a spiritual leader? Generally, it means that the leader inspires employees by his or her personal examples. As role models, they have to display the highest level of integrity and honesty. They also encourage their employees to grow personally and to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Some believe that organizations should not only embrace religious expression at work, but also use those views as strategic elements to achieve a competitive advantage. In other words, businesses should engage the full potential associated with a religiously diverse and spiritually active workforce. Proponents of this strategy believe that improved morale and greater productivity are byproducts of this approach.
In “A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America,” co-author Ian Mitroff found that employees who work for organizations they consider to be spiritual are less fearful, less likely to compromise their values, and more able to throw themselves into their jobs. So at companies all across the U.S., managers are meeting for spiritual conferences and prayer breakfasts.
To encourage a more spiritual workplace, a variety of things have been done, including:
Setting up a quiet room in the workplace where employees can spend time reflecting, meditating, doing yoga, or praying, as desired.
Organizing a retreat for managers or employees to discuss their spiritual journeys and share ideas.
Encourage employees to find time to read inspirational materials, be in nature or meditate. For example, Xerox employees have engaged in “vision quests” where they commune with nature to seek inspiration in new product development.
Bring in chaplains or religious leaders to help employees cope with stress, illnesses, etc.
Set up brown-bag lunches that allow for discussions of the beliefs and practices of different faith groups.
Organize support groups and prayer systems.
Value the contributions employees make to the betterment of the world.
Unleash the creativity of employees at the workplace.
Encourage inclusion and embrace diversity.
Define and promote principles and values-based leadership.
Not every organization or its leaders are interested in becoming a spiritual workplace or in encouraging employees to adhere to spiritual practices. Nor am I suggesting that they should become more spiritual nor require employees to participate in spiritual activities. I am just pointing out that increasingly more employees and managers seem to be seeking a more spiritual connection at one of the biggest parts of their lives — their jobs.
For some individuals, the increased time spent at work has made them reevaluate what they are actually doing at work, and question whether it is serving a higher purpose in their lives. For those employees, working at a place that aligns with their religious or spiritual beliefs is one way that they can align all that is important to them.
Dr. Joyce E. A. Russell is the Vice Dean and the Director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.