The old adage goes something like,
"A happy employee is a hard working employee."
But for centuries, most businesses have seemed to wrestle with what this really means. If it can be assumed that one of the major purposes of life is to be happy, then, skimming over the history of humankind's relationship to work, we would find much to suggest that it fails to go much beyond the rudimentary task of putting food on our table and a roof over our head. But isn't there more to life than just surviving? And if so, how might work make a more meaningful contribution?
However, the situation seems to be changing. With better understanding of the human psyche and growing pressure from a more aware and spiritual population, some businesses are creating work environments that recognize we are all on some kind of spiritual journey. While for some this means encouraging reflection or introducing story-telling into the work place, others have found themselves asking the question, "What business are we really in?" looking to a bigger vision.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ancestral home of the Aztecs, and for a sultry week last November home to 450 participants from 21 countries for The International Conference on Business and Consciousness.
The conference is the brain child of James Berry, a former natural products distributor who employed 65 people in the United States. Wishing to meet like-minded people interested in spirituality and making a positive impact in the world, he came up with the concept of holding a conference specifically geared for the business community. "I looked around but found nothing that was suitable. I was entrepreneurially oriented and wanted to meet with others who had similar interests."
Recognizing the shift in power from religious institutions to the state, and now to business, ("Of the largest 100 economies," he says, "49 are countries and 51 are corporations.") Berry believed that more responsibility would need to fall on businesses in the near future to meet the social and environmental needs of the community.
Not convinced that the current business environment was meeting these needs Berry made a list of who he might invite to this conference and what he hoped to cover. Eight months later the first conference took place, attracting 85 people, including presenters.
Despite words of caution from his friends about the success of such an event, word quickly spread. Further testimony to the fact Berry was on the right track came when the conference started attracting some of the bigger names in this area.
Among the heavy weights at last year's conference was Barbara Marx Hubbard, a writer well known for her contribution to the theory of our "conscious evolution", and mother of five who spoke about the need for changing roles. She had a calm yet impacting voice which mirrored the message she gave to a capacity audience, most of whom were women. She issued a call for women to choose between becoming a "co-creator" or a "pro-creator", and not take the latter necessarily by default or tradition.
In the 4.5 billion year life cycle of consciousness, she said, we were still in our diaper stage, and that if anything, patience was called for. She believes that consciousness has evolved through humanity to the point where we, especially women, need to re-think the term creation and our role within it. Hubbard referred to the maternal creativity and nurturing qualities more commonly found in women as being essential to the new form of decision-making required to advance humanity into the next millennium, yet which is currently concentrated to the production of children.
Also from the consciousness corner came Deepak Chopra, a prolific writer about the mind/body link to health, who introduced the term "synchrodestiny", explaining that contemporary physics now confirmed the link between consciousness and physical manifestation. He said that as we become more attuned to and follow our spiritual path the likelihood of "coincidences" increases to aid us in achieving our goal.
From the other corner, representing a variety of well known and successful businesses, were the likes of Michael Rennie and Richard Barrett.
Michael Rennie, a director of McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm working with many Fortune 500 companies, has for the last year analyzed the effects of providing paid reflection time to employees at a large telecommunications company. The theory being that people can be more deeply satisfied when they have a clearer sense of where they are going and what makes them happy.
To help employees do this, Rennie's team lead employees through a set of reflective exercises and encouraged personal meditation to develop a culture of creativity from which employees could then share with the group and, where possible, alter their work environment to meet their needs. Rennie believes that a person can't reach their potential if they are not sure why they are there in the first place, and to get a person "to bring all of their self to work" they need to engage in reflective practice of one sort or another to find out how this can happen.
Following the implementation of some of the outcomes coming from the session the company experienced substantial increases in productivity and employee morale and a decrease in customer turnover.
Richard Barrett, formerly of The World Bank, spoke of a model he had developed that measured the values of an employee, their employer and the employee's ideal employment situation. He found that organizations that came closer to matching the values of their employees with those of organization performed better than those that did not, despite other things such as financial incentives being offered.
And so the two camps were roughly split for the some 60 presenters at the conference. Those interested in our conscious and spiritual evolution being facilitated by businesses on the one hand, and those who saw that it was in a business' interests to recognize the growing spiritually motivated movement on the other.
Somewhere in between the two, it was apparent that the future role of work may well indeed have to change.
Much of the above research suggests that a person's job should be as much about providing a space for the expression of their spiritual "journey" as concentrating on the actual function performed, e.g. how many phone calls they answer.
Whereas in earlier situations companies looked
to increase performance through bonus schemes, pay raises, tasking or forms of negative reinforcement, in the future companies may look to increase performance through recognizing the spiritual make-up of each and every person and then creating an environment where this can be expressed and supported. This also demonstrates a shift from focussing on the external stimulus to honoring and appreciating ones internal direction.
So it brings us back to the question of what business are businesses really in?
If the conference in Mexico is any indication we can expect some companies to seek to understand and accommodate the very core of who we are, and in the process, create an environment that encourages people to express their spirituality and ask why they are here.
It provides an opportunity to align organizational goals with those of the individual, and perhaps in time help others to realize that in fact "work" and "organizations" are just an expression of what is going on inside of us, and that the real answers lie in creating a work environment that seeks to support the fulfillment of humanity as we each uniquely relate to it, while also recognizing the necessary function business performs in meeting our "survival" needs.
As could be expected the conference created an atmosphere of excitement and optimism. By day five of the conference there was an incredible feeling of closeness and confidence that could only come from 450 people coming together with the intention of exploring their spirituality for the benefit of all.