The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in the UK published an ambitious report last month: Spiritualise – Revitalising Spirituality for 21st Century Challenges. The report seeks to integrate scientific understandings of human nature with an exploration of the role and understanding of spirituality in society. It’s a bold initiative which aims to straddle academic rigour, readability and practical insights for policy and action. Five themes struck me about spirituality in organisations:
1. Spirituality is the yearning in people’s lives for something beyond the material aspects of their existence. Spirituality is a multi-faceted and contested word – it relates to the search for meaning and the ground on which people stand and live their life. As we spend such a significant part of our life at work, this search for meaning and growth should find appropriate expression in the workplace. This search for meaning is a universal drive and crosses the divides of secular and religious language; in many ways the vagueness of the term ‘spiritual’ may allow us to talk openly about the values and practices that are fundamental to a worthwhile life, well lived.
2. The importance of leaders articulating a shared purpose that engages people’s spirit and calls forth their highest potential. There was a telling quote from Claire Gilbert-Smith, Director of the Westminster Abbey Institute about those working in and around Parliament: the atmosphere is like “a brittle sponge that is so desperate for water… it’s obvious in the people, the institutions, it’s in the air, this huge longing for depth.”
In my experience of working with organisations this longing for our work to add up to something significant, to be in service of some larger purpose, beyond just meeting our material needs or the numbers for shareholder returns, is strongly felt across all sectors, not just politics.
3. The maps that we apply to the workplace and people are in need of updating. Many conversations in organisations around the topic of leadership development or organisational development are based on the implicit assumption that as human beings we are primarily rational and self-determining. There’s an inference made that we are conscious of and deliberate about our behavioural choices and consistent in the application of those deliberations.
The report argues that these taken-for-granted assumptions that drive much of what goes on in organisations (and public policy) are not scientifically or spiritually grounded. It’s no wonder that so many leadership and other kinds of development programmes have such little impact. The emerging 21st century picture century view of human beings as elaborated in the report “indicates we are fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual creatures, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational.” This brief summary quote requires unpacking and the report does that.
4. The uncomfortable truth is that we live mostly unconsciously on psychological autopilot. The RSA report quotes studies that indicate conscious thought may be causal for as little as 5% of our behaviour, the remaining 95% of our behaviour being a mixture of automatic and habitual responses.
Our habitual, largely unconscious brain processing and our tendency towards psychological homeostasis, so clearly articulated by Professor Robert Kegan in his book Immunity to Change, cause us many difficulties. Many of our most pressing and toughest problems facing organisations and society, require us to think, feel and act differently: particularly in response to so-called ‘adaptive challenges’.
Gurdjieff, an early 20th century spiritual writer, described what has been known in different religious and spiritual traditions over the millennia and what the RSA terms ‘automaticity’: “Man is asleep…he has no real consciousness or will. He is not free; to him, everything ‘happens’. He can become conscious and find his true place as a human being in the creation, but this requires a profound transformation.”
5. The bright spark of possibility is that as human beings we have the potential to live with awareness and choice. In spiritual terms this is often described as our latent capacity ‘to wake up’. The positive effects of this waking up, and being present in our life, are evocatively captured in the report in the following quotation by 85 year old, Nadine Satir: “Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after the other, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.”
This quality of being present in our personal life may also be very helpful for our working life. How do we wake up and be present? Mindfulness is a key life practice to cultivate this quality of presence. I propose ‘life practice’ as a more universal term, and to avoid the politics of labelling by naming it spiritual, religious or psychological practice. This month’s All Parliamentary Interim report on Mindfulness and its application in public policy defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with curiosity and compassion”.
Hunter and Chaskalson in the RSA report explain the relevance of mindfulness: “The power of mindfulness arises from systematically developing a person‘s attention so that she can recognise in the moment how she identifies with her implicit, habitual and automated patterns of thinking, feeling and acting and the results they bring about. By recognising these patterns, she can elect to change course. As a result mindfulness endows ‘an adaptability and pliancy of mind with quickness of apt response in changing situation.”
The practical question is how we grow this mindfulness capacity widely in our workplaces and how can it be introduced wisely and effectively.
The RSA report, whilst illuminating can also be hard-going at points, given its impossibly broad task and breadth of ambition. Rather brilliantly, the report ends with an insight from spiritual writer, Richard Rohr about the way forward …“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
For further practical inspiration on how to act on these ideas watch or listen to Thursday’s talk at the RSA live (22/01 at 1300 UK time), How to become a soulful organisation, with Frederic Laloux, author of best-selling book, Reinventing Organisations. Here at Future Considerations, we too are exploring what it means to create soulful, purposeful and powerful workplaces and how we can help our clients on their journey.