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Uncovering Soul in the Workplace
By Eileen McDargh   Printer Friendly Version

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported "soul is in". In a headline calling it "the buzzword of the '90s" a front-page story reported that some 322 citations for the word appear in the current edition of Books in Print. That's nearly four times the number in 1990.

Having been asked by corporate executives to address soul and spirit at a recent leadership forum, I decided it was time to tackle the topic in writing. What prompts the use of this term? What do we make of it? Does this appear to be calling for a spiritual revival across the world of business?

Here's an analysis:

Times of upheaval, great change, and chaos call for a re-assessment of values. With a globalized, competitive economy and job security now a once-upon-a-time thing, is it any wonder that we all seek a deeper meaning to what we do and why we do it. As my Canadian colleague Ian Percy describes it, our workplaces are experiencing a "great shuddering".

Workers are no longer willing to rent themselves to a job to survive to the weekend. Rather, this term "soul" implies looking for a deeper purpose behind work other than just gaining a paycheck. It also implies that people want to be identified as whole individuals with brains, hearts, AND souls waiting to be opened within the workplace.

Note the phrase "waiting to be opened". It carries the same connotation as the first word in this article's headline, "uncovering". Soul/spirit has always been here. Wise leaders have known how to access it, for themselves first, and then for others. But it goes against conventional wisdom because it cannot be tracked, measured, benchmarked, or in anyway quantified. No audit can place it on the balance sheet but its impact can be felt on the bottom line.

Soul/spirit can only be visible in context. Like natural gas which cannot be seen until it is lit, soul burns bright when it's flush with enthusiasm and excitement, when it is being listened to deeply by people who matter most. Soul blossoms when given opportunity for meaningful contribution, innovation, and learning. It retreats in environments where trust is absent, where politics take precedence over performance, where positional privilege takes most of the gain and little of the pain connected with restructuring.

Uncovering soul, therefore, means examining both behaviors and systems within an organization. Is there congruency between what is said and what is practiced? Are people invited to participate and then ignored when they do? Does the organization preach empowerment but then require multiple sign-offs before action takes place? Do managers claim to have an open-door policy but then respond in anger when they hear something they don't like? These are just some of the questions which, when honestly answered, can indicate if there's breathing space for the soul.

Engaging the human spirit is the softer side of business. But without the "software" of soul/spirit, you'll never truly engage the mindware. And that's what ultimately creates the competitive edge for the future.

 


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