Spirit at Work

workplace-spirituality-mastheadBack in 1997, when “spirituality” was pretty much a taboo word in the workplace, I wrote this article for a Twin Cities business magazine.  An article like this may have been groundbreaking at the time but it’s nice to know that it would be fairly commonplace today. In fact, some of what I wrote fifteen years ago almost seems a bit quaint after all the progress that’s been made!


‘Spirit’ is a loaded word. Mix it into the dynamics of the workplace and all kinds of red flags spring up. Many businesspeople are immediately drawn to the concept, yet remain deeply suspicious of it.

Perhaps the best way to reconcile these conflicting emotions is simply to define what “spirit at work” really is. Enter Ellen Hufschmidt.

“It means having the courage to bring your whole self to the workplace, to act in accordance with your values and to act with integrity,” says Hufschmidt, an organizational development consultant in Minneapolis. “It means addressing any discrepancy between your values and the demands of work. That’s where it becomes truly difficult, being challenged in those moments of discrepancy. But that’s where spirit at work is. It’s in those moments.”

If we approached work with the courage to stand up for ourselves and our values, says Hufschmidt, work could be as much of a spiritual practice as going to church on Sunday or meditating each day.

Being spiritual at work means speaking the truth, adds George Golden, a University of St. Thomas associate professor who teaches an MBA course called ‘The Modern Manager: Spirituality at Work.’ “Having the courage to act on your convictions, which isn’t easy to do in a lot of workplaces, has really resonated with a lot of my students,” says Golden. “That doesn’t have to mean radically changing the total organization; a lot of them don’t have the power base to do that. What they want to do is act in a way that’s meaningful, purposeful and speaks their truth, and do so in a way that honors themselves and other people.”

Bob Wahlstedt and his two partners felt so strongly about encouraging their employees to live and work at a higher level that they built the concept into their direction statement when they founded Reell Precision Manufacturing Corp. in St. Paul 27 years ago. “I would define spirituality as the search for meaning and purpose in life,” offers Wahlstedt. “We ask our employees, in our company’s direction statement, to make decisions consistent with the purposes of God, according to their individual understanding, by doing what’s right, doing their best, treating others the way they would like to be treated, and seeking inspirational wisdom.”

Ironically, adds Wahlstedt, in the name of diversity, we have excluded diversity. “If we value diversity,” he says, “then a company like ours that operates on those principles adds to the diversity of our business community. If we say that people’s religious or spiritual perceptions must be excluded from the workplace in the name of diversity, what we’re really doing is saying, ‘You must all be alike. You must all be non-religious or non-spiritual or secular.’ So in the name of diversity, we’re enforcing a secular uniformity.”

Anyone who thinks ‘spirit’ has no business in the workplace may need to rethink what the word means, says Kevin Cashman, president of LeaderSource, a Minneapolis-based executive coaching and career management consultancy. “People talk about ‘spirituality’ as if it’s something ‘out there’ instead of viewing it as something very natural and inherent to life. It’s a natural desire that all of us want more spirit in our work, want more spirit in our lives, and we want those to be more connected. Spirituality has been around since before the caveman; we’re releasing it more than creating it. So it’s more about letting it come out than about bringing something from the outside in.”

“Spirit is already in the workplace, it’s in the hearts of the workers,” agrees Sandra Giese, an organizational development consultant at Northern States Power. “The question is, do we allow ourselves to acknowledge that and encourage it to manifest itself?”

Conveying the concept of spirit is not about explanation, it’s about speaking what people already know, adds Barbara Shipka, author of Leadership in a Challenging World: A Sacred Journey. The most concise definition of ‘spirit at work,’ says Shipka, can be found in three lines of verse by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.

Of course, if a hundred people were asked for their definition of ‘spirit at work,’ there would probably be a hundred different replies. And that’s just fine, says Cristy Holden, co-founder of Bear Lake Traders, a mail order catalog offering products of a spiritual nature. “Spirituality’ is a very, very broad word that means so much to so many people. And that’s good because that lets everybody design it for themselves. But whatever it is, we all know when it’s missing.”

All it takes is a trip to a bookstore or a look at upcoming seminars to realize that there’s a growing hunger for information about ‘spirit at work.’

The simplest way to explain this phenomenon, says Craig Neal, is that people are seeking a wholeness in their life. “What is becoming increasingly apparent to a growing number of people is that their life as an individual, a family member, as part of a community, and what they do all day at work, increasingly needs to be interconnected. There is an increasing demand for individuals to find that connection, that integration in their lives.

“There’s been a sea change in the way we look at our values chiefly because we’ve got a baby boomer generation of 75 million people who are in, or are reaching, middle age. They’ve raised their children, they’ve been in their careers for a period of time, and now they’re asking some pretty important questions like, who am I, what am I here to do, and how am I living that life?”

Neal believes so strongly in the need to engage the human spirit at work that he put his money where his heart is. He resigned as publisher of the Utne Reader in December, 1995 so that he and his wife, Patricia, could found the Heartland Institute, an educational organization created to foster social and spiritual transformation in the workplace. Heartland Institute’s “Inner Life of Business” conference series includes themes such as “Igniting Purpose and Spirit in Work” and “Leadership from the Inside Out.” Neal also founded the Conscious Business Alliance, a coalition of businesses, organizations and individuals committed to exploring the ways in which the business community can both enrich and be enriched by the human soul and spirit.

In the past, says Neal, government and religion have had dominant roles in the evolution of our culture, but business has evolved to become the most effective agent of change. “Business has become the global delivery system for cultural expression,” he explains. “Because of the Internet and other forms of communication, business has become a more potent framework in which different cultures are being linked. My great hope, and one of the things that gives me a lot of encouragement, is that this rapid exchange of knowledge and information is such that we can create the solutions to the problems we’ve created for ourselves within our lifetime. And I see business as the conduit through which that transformation can occur.”

It’s no surprise that the concept of spirit at work has become such a hot topic, says Barbara J. Winter, a local author, speaker and seminar leader. “The issue always has been, for anybody who’s on a spiritual path, to figure out how to express their spirit and put it to work in their everyday life. Because more people are exploring different ideas about spirituality, it’s just logical that it would show up in the workplace.”

Of course, people will only begin to reveal more of themselves at work when they consider it safe to do so. After 15 years of keeping a very special plaque on her desk at home, Mary Stultz finally felt comfortable enough to bring it to work when she joined Fairview Hospital as a consultant for leadership development in September.

“The plaque has an abundance affirmation that’s basically a belief that the universe will provide,” says Stultz. “Up until this point, wherever I had worked, it had felt risky to be that public about my spiritual beliefs. But this is an environment where people feel free to build on their strengths in absence of fear. It’s more accepting of people being themselves and less a place where people need to be politically correct. I’ve had multiple meetings with senior leaders and they’ve all been very interested in me as a person, not just in my experience and my degrees, which is a pretty unique experience.”

George Golden goes so far as to say that the workplace should be a path to spiritual development. “It has to be a sacred place,” he insists, “because otherwise you strip it of a lot of its meaning and it becomes a place of robots and automatons. If it’s just about the numbers and not about the people and the process of interacting, then you don’t fully honor people as human beings.”

“If people just bring their bodies to work to put parts together, then we’re losing something,” confirms Bob Wahlstedt, whose company manufactures electromechanical components, primarily clutches and hinges. Wahlstedt recommends using a ‘teach/equip/trust’ style of management rather than a ‘command/direct/control’ style.

“The results of this approach are most tangible in our production area where our assembly people often come in with no particular skill other than hand-to-eye dexterity,” he says. “But those people on the assembly line do everything on their own from scheduling and assembly to in-process checks and failure analysis. The product is then shipped on their say-so without any routine inspection other than a periodic audit of the process.

“The only way you really see the effect of that is to go down and talk to those people. They’re happy in their work, they’re proud of what they do, they like to talk about what they do to people who come to visit, and the turnover is almost zero. The most important reason for enriching those production jobs is for the benefit of the people who do it; they’re happier and more fulfilled. But from the company’s standpoint it also makes for a better product. When people understand what they’re doing and understand how to know when what they’re building is good and when it isn’t, and take pride in that, the product that comes out is a more consistent, better product. We’ve achieved quality records that are almost unheard of. For example, we ship roughly half a million units a year to Xerox and it’s been three to four years since we’ve had any rejections.”

Creating a ‘spirit-friendly’ workplace can dramatically improve both the top line and the bottom line, agrees Kathy Tunheim, president of Tunheim Santrizos, a public relations and communications management firm in Bloomington. But, she cautions, it can also mean that, theoretically, almost every policy can be debated almost every time, which can make things very ‘messy.’

“The whole notion of spirit at work implies that each individual’s value system or spiritual orientation is as deserving of respect as the next person’s, whether that person is the boss or the newest employee,” says Tunheim. “That flies in the face of the traditional notion of organization in which the value system that takes hold is the one that the most powerful person has. It can become very complicated when we try to be respectful of another person’s orientation yet at the same time need to work together closely and communicate with each other on all kinds of things in all kinds of ways – and doing all that without crossing over lines that have the potential to, if not offend people, at least confuse them and cause them to feel insecure. It creates a much more ambiguous set of rules for working together.”

An organization can still be healthy and effective, adds Tunheim, even when the people in it don’t share the same value system or spiritual orientation. “It’s almost impossible to get the best performance out of people in a restrictive environment,” she says. “I’d much rather have an environment where people think they’re being encouraged to reach their full potential. And for somebody to do that, they have to be able to tap into and draw from all of their self, including their value system and their orientation in terms of faith. It seems to me that only works if there is a vigilant effort to convince people that dialogue about values is okay.”

What complicates matters even further, says Barbara Shipka, is that “nobody really knows, or needs to know, when someone is consciously bringing his or her whole self or spiritual essence to work. There’s no announcement necessary. It’s a very, very personal decision.”

Welcoming spirit into the workplace isn’t going to be easy for most businesses, notes Craig Neal, because people’s spiritual life, social life and work life have been separate for far too long. “When people are allowed to bring their spiritual life into the workplace, there are going to be some dramatic shifts,” he says. “On the surface, it’s going to be very threatening to a lot of companies so it’s not going to come without conflict.”

Daring to trust people and build more intimate relationships often seems to backfire at first, according to Dan Hanson, president of the Fluid Dairy Division at Land O’Lakes and author of two books on organizational change and personal empowerment. “You may need to, either as an individual or a group, go through the ‘facing of the shadows,’ as Carl Jung would say, when you begin dealing with those issues that keep us from connecting at deeper levels. At the bottom of it is always fear. For example, a phrase used throughout the peak of the industrial era has been, ‘This is not a family, it’s a workplace and therefore this notion of being a happy family or of caring for each other is okay for home or in your community but it’s not okay at work.’ That’s based on fear – fear of losing control, fear of the conflict that might emerge and the inability to work through it, and, at a deeper level, even fear of abandonment. We call it the ‘soft stuff’ and discount it but it’s really the ‘hard stuff.’”

Even if a company feels threatened by the idea of allowing spirit in the workplace, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be open to it, says Doug Baker, president of the Chief Executive Academy, Inc., a Minneapolis company involved in assisting very senior leaders with their own personal growth and transitions.

“In our country,” explains Baker, “we’ve had a separation of not only church and state, but church and business. I think it’s unfortunate when people say, particularly in publicly owned organizations, that it’s a dangerous thing to have spirit involved in work. Primarily, I think that’s come about from certain people with religious convictions who feel that the only way to advance spiritually is to hold the same spiritual beliefs as they do.

“But talking about the spiritual growth and development of the soul transcends any specific religious organization or belief so it’s more about unleashing this thing than controlling it. The problem is, very few people know how to do it or feel comfortable doing it and there are a lot of people willing to shoot at you if you try to do it. The media in general is very suspicious of anything dealing with spirituality. There are a lot of numbers-driven people on Wall Street who are very suspicious. And there are lawyers out there who are just dying to get ahold of organizations who are trying to do anything that smacks of spirituality or religiosity. So it’s a very tricky kind of approach and it takes somebody with a lot of savvy and a lot of conviction to try to do it.”

The good news, says Baker, is that more and more businesses are recognizing the obvious benefits of spirit in the workplace. “Clearly, the organization is more effective if its people are more fulfilled and unleashed. And if the clients are being served more spectacularly and effectively, then more profits are going to flow to the organization and, ultimately, the shareholder is going to benefit.”

Baker has no patience with business leaders who insist on seeing ‘proof‘ that cultivating the spiritual lives of workers will increase productivity and profits. “The question is,” he says, “do you believe in investing in your people resources and making them more competent and unleashing their talents? And do you understand that that’s a long-term investment just like investing in capital goods? Yet there are people who say ‘show me the numbers’ to prove, for example, that investment in education is worthwhile. If you don’t understand that, if you have to be shown that a training class is going to immediately pay off to the bottom line, then you’ll never get it and there’s no amount of numbers that will prove to you that it works. It requires a whole philosophical shift.”

All the principles that support all the great spiritual traditions are the same principles that work in business, adds Kevin Cashman. “The principle of trust or connectedness or caring for other people or treating others as you’d like to be treated, are the same principles that are the basis of healthy, effective, productive organizations. But until an organization makes the connection that these spiritual principles work and make organizations more effective and productive, they tend not to want to support or live them.”

But if a business culture and its leaders don’t open up to the concept of spiritual expression at work, people who do open up to it will want to leave, adds Cashman. “People who are not finding congruence with their spiritual life in their work environment will seek other environments where they can find more congruence. That doesn’t mean that someone immediately leaves; it may mean that they’ll find a little division within a larger company that has congruence with their values and principles. But, ultimately, if they find that the whole organization doesn’t support that, they’ll naturally want to find congruence with that elsewhere.”

The rapid proliferation of small and home-based businesses supports that theory, says Barbara Winter. “A lot of people get to the point where they say, ‘I really want my work to be an expression of what I believe and care about’ and they realize that it might be faster, easier and more effective for them to, instead of putting their energy towards transforming an organization, to start their own. There are a lot of people who come from that position who do not dream of building the next Microsoft. They dream of having a very hands-on business of their own where every single day they can live their values. And they really see this as their way of serving in the world.”

Tom Gegax, ‘head coach’ of Tires Plus, and one of the most well-known ‘pro-spirit’ business owners in the Twin Cities, included a massage room, meditation room and fitness center in his company’s new headquarters in Burnsville. He’s convinced that successful corporate leaders of the 21st century will be spiritual leaders who will not only be comfortable with their own spirituality but will know how to create an environment where people’s spiritual development is able to flourish.

“There’s a great spiritual movement occurring in this country and throughout the world,” says Gegax. “As times get more complex and stressful, people seek meaning and purpose in their lives. And when you’ve got people moving in that direction, the idea of spirit at work will resonate with them. They will be drawn to leaders who they perceive are talking the talk and walking the walk to the best of their ability. They’ll want to stay in that environment and they’ll be motivated by it. Trying to reach people through a higher purpose is more beneficial than reaching them because ‘I said to do it’ or because we want to whack the competitor.

“So it’s helpful if the CEO is not a roadblock but, in fact, is the one who helps to create an environment where spirit can exist But there’s a fine line; on one hand, you’ve got an environment where spirit is not permitted to flourish. On the other end of the spectrum it’s being pushed, which does far more harm than good. If someone is pushing it, they’re not likely to be resonating spirituality because that would be contradictory to what spirituality is all about.”

Introducing the idea of spirit at work requires a delicate approach because many people really don’t understand what the concept means. What makes it even more difficult, says Gegax, is that some people don’t know that they don’t know.

“The key is, you don’t tell them they ‘don’t get it’ because that’s when you meet incredible resistance,” he says. “Its a very sensitive area and it’s very important that leaders don’t try to push it. I don’t go around championing people’s need for being spiritual. If I model it, albeit imperfectly, then when I’m asked questions, I have the opportunity to share what’s worked for me and what has had a positive impact on my life. It’s a slow process but it works better that way.”

The other key, says Gegax, is recognizing that ‘spiritual’ differs from ‘religious.’ “We need to honor whatever path someone takes,” he says. “We’ll put up a notice of a Promise Keepers meeting or sponsor Deepak Chopra coming to town. As we become more global, the need to be open to everybody’s way is critical. There are so many different wonderful religions and I believe that I, as a leader, need to honor all of those. There’s an important place for spirituality in the workplace as long as it’s open to all and not promoting a particular religion.”

Still, notes Barbara Shipka, many people use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ interchangeably. “I was speaking to a group of people who had all read my book ahead of time,” recalls Shipka, “I didn’t talk directly about God at all. Yet, one person left me a very touching and compassionate note conveying the hope that one day I would go beyond what he or she perceived as my humanistic views and find Jesus Christ as my Savior. So there can be great confusion.”

While it’s certainly helpful when the CEO leads the way, it’s not the only way to get there from here, says Kathleen Moriarty, a marketing communications manager at St. Paul Companies who holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of St. Catherine. She’s also a board member of Wisdom Ways, an ecumenical resource center on spirituality in St. Paul, and a facilitator in the center’s “Spirit at Work” program.

“There’s nothing wrong or inappropriate if the initial push comes from the CEO or senior level management,” says Moriarty. “The advantage with that is then you’ve got a real strong company sanction. But a grassroots effort is more ‘organic’ and provides employees with a greater sense of ownership.”

Moriarty helped to introduce the concept of spirituality in the workplace at St. Paul Companies by setting up monthly ‘brown bag’ meetings over the lunch hour that are open to every employee. The purpose of the meetings is to get people talking and thinking about the integration of work and personal life. Topics have included spirituality in the workplace, the aging process, and the connectedness between physical, spiritual and emotional health. St. Paul Companies also now has an e-mail bulletin board called InnerWork, where employees can share information about seminars, books, newspaper articles, and anything else they find meaningful.

“One of the greatest goods to come out of these ‘brown bag’ meetings is people coming together and not feeling alone,” says Moriarty. “People are sitting around a table and thinking, ‘Somebody else is thinking about this stuff.’ This is something I feel passionate about and if I have the opportunity to share that passion, to share my ideas, to share their ideas, that’s beneficial to me. I need to tell people I care about it and I like to find out that they do, too. There’s strength and energy and creativity that comes out of that.”

There’s also freedom. “People get tired of having to check themselves at the door from eight to five every day,” says Moriarty. “It takes a lot of energy to hide yourself and always have to think about what’s safe to say. I don’t want to have to be thinking, ‘Well, I can’t talk about that seminar I’m going to because it will sound political, and I can’t talk about that workshop because it’ll sound like I’m talking about religion.’”

Sharing ideas is a very effective way to begin the process, agrees Dan Hanson. “The model I work with in my own division is that you begin a dialogue of ‘Gee, what kind of an environment do we want this to be?’ One of the things we’ve done is watch films of other companies like Southwest Airlines. And we ask, ‘What is it about these environments that seems to be pretty neat?’ so that you get people engaged in a dialogue. And out of that may emerge a shared vision. And then you start dealing with what’s getting in the way of realizing that vision.”

The third element in Hanson’s strategy is tapping into a natural, community-driven process where leaders emerge to bring the concept to fruition. “It involves walking the talk and daring to begin to behave in new ways,” he explains. “If you get that going, over a period of time, it starts to become contagious. But you have to do it in a way that respects the individual and respects boundaries. It’s very difficult because it’s really an evolutionary process.”

Respecting boundaries also means respecting when someone wants to be left alone. “When I was on Paula Schroeder’s show on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), a listener called in and said, ‘Listen, I’m a working mother, I have two kids, I work because I have to. What if I don’t want to get involved in this? Is it fair to force me to?’ And it really kind of sobered me because those are the things that have to be dealt with. You have to help people get engaged and give them reasons to be engaged.”

Once the process of engagement begins, however, it often seems to take on a life of its own. “Ultimately, however, the change happens inside each of us,” says Minneapolis-based organizational consultant and author Margaret Lulic, whose book, Who We Could Be At Work offers 35 personal stories of real people and companies.

“Inside ourselves is the alignment of the mind, the heart, the body and the soul,” says Lulic. “An organization needs to align itself the same way, not only through all the people who work in it but also by matching up its actions, its talk, its philosophy and its financial status. The human being and the organization are macro/micro mirrors of each other.”

The best way, then, to creating a spirit-friendly workplace is encouraging the people in that workplace to embark on their own path of personal and spiritual growth. And that, says Kathleen Moriarty, is a tall order indeed.

“You can’t grow until you start to know yourself,” she explains. “That’s a very difficult process for many people because what you’re doing is moving beyond completely identifying yourself as a title. If I’m going to start being more creative and bringing more of my whole self into the workplace, I have to be not only willing to share some of that, I have to know what it is. And people are in different places when it comes to personal growth; if you go back ten years to when people started talking about diversity in the workplace, people were in different places on that issue, too. That was also an educational process and I see some parallels there. Yes, it’s hard work and it’s scary work but I also think it’s work that many people want to do and are doing whether they’re supported in the workplace or not.

Moriarty echoes Craig Neal’s contention that a major reason behind this rapidly growing trend is the aging of the baby boomers. “I don’t mean to say that people in their 20s or 30s don’t have a sense of spirituality, it’s just that it seems to become more important as you grow older because of shifting values and dealing with the loss of dreams,” she says. “People in their 40s and 50s are reevaluating their lives and what they’re working for and realizing that it’s about more than a title and a paycheck. Another driver is the tremendous upheaval in the workplace in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The number of people who lost jobs or were demoted and had their identity shot to smithereens are thinking, ‘What am I about? I thought I was about my title and now my title’s gone.’”

Most everyone, says Tom Gegax, has had a rude awakening somewhere along the way and found themselves at a fork in the road having to choose between denial or greater awareness. “In his book, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, P.D. Ouspensky said we’re all in a waking sleep. When you’re in that ‘sleep,’ you can’t tap into your own spirituality because you wouldn’t recognize it if you saw it, so your life becomes more and more stressful. But the more conscious we are, that is, the more we meditate, the more we work out, the healthier we eat, the more books we read, then we’re able to tap into that to a greater degree.”

The degree that you do tap into your own spirituality has a significant impact on the work you do, adds Barbara Winter. “Today, more people are saying, ‘How does my life flow out of what I believe?’ Naturally, it impacts our work when we come from that position. And spirituality, or a lack of it, shows up in every part of our life. The people we deal with may not know that we spent half an hour meditating before we came to work but it shows up in how we behave once we get there. When we’re not doing those things, when we’re not caring for ourselves and consciously exploring our spirituality, we shortchange ourselves. Lack of spirituality shows up when you’re oblivious to the people around you. We see that often as consumers in the way we’re treated. We certainly see it in people who have difficulty in their interpersonal relationships. But it’s really about their relationship with themselves because you can’t outperform your self-image.”

The desire for authenticity and purpose in people’s lives is so great right now, says Neal, that ‘spirit at work’ will prove to be an irreversible trend. “People want to be engaged in their work, they want to contribute and they’re demanding that their lives be more integrated. It will go through a phase of being trivialized because that’s the phase of examination and that’s healthy, but the need and the hunger is so great that there is no turning back.”

An observation by former Stanford University professor Everett M. Rogers corroborates Neal’s assertion quite nicely: “When approximately 5% of a population adopts a new idea, it becomes ‘embedded.’ When it’s accepted by 20% of the people, it is unstoppable.”

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4 Responses to “Spirit at Work”

  1. Michael Bischoff Says:

    I’m very happy to have found this article and your blog! I spent a lot of time on this article–reading a bit and then google-ing different people and organizations that you mentioned. I am based in Minneapolis and doing interviews and writing about the spiritual transformation of institutions–and I found the article very useful. I’m also impressed with how prolific of a blog writer you are.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Glad you found it, Michael! Good luck with your work. And thank you for the kind words!

  3. Patrick Says:

    Enjoyed the article: provides many resources to expand and develop spirituality in the workplace.


  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    You’re welcome, Pat!

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