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The Soul at Work
by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine

What About People?

"Business is about people" has been bandied around for some time, and yet rarely addressed with a any human depth. Consequently, the feeling of not being valued is pervasive in the business world. As a result, overall job satisfaction and corporate morale in most places may be at an all time low. The prevailing mechanistic model of business encourages managers to see people as cogs in machines, not as people. People deeply resent being made machinelike, in order to fit into the machine. Henry Ford once said, "How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?" A manager in today’s knowledge-based economy might paraphrase this: "How come when I want a mind, I get a soul as well?"

And how come there commonly continues to exist a denial in the business mind, a stark omission of the importance of people and valuing them for not only the revenues they bring in, but simply as human beings? How come we refuse to see the obvious–that when people are treated as replaceable parts, as objects to control, are taught to be compliant, are used as fuel for the existing system–that inevitably you are going to have an organization that is fraught with frustration, anger, and isolation, which ultimately is detrimental to the business?

Work can be more than just a job

It is possible for people to be valued for themselves in the workplace, not just their function; for people’s souls to be nurtured and allowed to emerge where they work. In short, it is possible for work to be more than just a job, that work can be fulfilling and a life-enhancing experience, with all its trials, tribulations, and thrills. This is precisely what we observed for the most part in the companies we talked to during the research for our book.

To the manager who says, "This all sounds soft and unbusinesslike," beware: these companies are all very successful in traditional bottom-line terms, not despite being human-oriented, but rather, as many of the CEOs we talked with argue, because of it. To the executive who says, "Okay, that sounds easy, I’ll try it," beware: it’s not easy; it’s hard, perhaps the hardest of all management practices. And to the manager who says, "That sounds all well and good, but I can’t afford to spend time on relationships," beware: you are not getting the best out of your company. Because business is all about relationships. And when we have quality relationships based on trust, this lubricates our task efforts and makes for greater efficiency. In fact, it’s more a question whether you can afford not to spend time developing relationships. It doesn’t have to be either/or, a dichotomy between money and people. In fact, it can’t be. Our world is too complex.

The Soul at Work

What is the soul at work? Complexity science sees the world as composed of complex adaptive systems, not machines. That is, living, interdependent, interconnected, dynamic entities. There is one principle of complexity is that complexity comes from a deep simplicity, and that deep simplicity that generates all the complexity in our business is relationships. In complex adaptive systems, how we interact and the kinds of relationships we form has everything to do with what kind of culture emerges, has everything to do with the emergence of creativity, productivity, adaptability, and innovation. When more interactions are care-full rather than care-less in an organization, a community of care and connection develops, creating a space for the soul at work to emerge.

"The soul at work" is a double entendre: it is at once the individual’s soul being allowed to be present in the workplace; and it is the emergence of a collective soul of the organization.

We witnessed the individual soul at work–where many people, once disheartened at work, evolved to being engaged in meaningful work. When the individual soul is engaged, people naturally want to add value, are willing to go the distance and devote time to endeavors they feel, regardless of how small, are worthwhile. Many people feel lost in their organizations, feel apart from them rather than a part of them. Many see themselves in a system in which they have little or no influence. Too often we heard front-line people, when reflecting on former places of work, say, "Nobody ever asked me what I thought, and it was hardly a possibility that they would act on it if they did." The business mind that becomes myopic, singularly valuing the financial bottom line and techniques to boost it, ultimately dehumanizes the organization, and, self-protectively, people disconnect from their soul so as not be exploited. People suffer and their organizations suffer.

Tapping into the web of connection

Actually, most people want to be part of their organization; they want to know the organization’s purpose; they want to make a difference. When the individual soul is connected to the organization, people become connected to something deeper–the desire to contribute to a larger purpose, to feel they are part of a greater whole, a web of connection. When this context develops, people begin to openly acknowledge the need for others, to see their interdependence, and their desire to belong–their tribal instinct awakens.

The soul at work is also a collective soul. We listened to the collective soul at work–the transformation of the protean spirit of the organization in all its shades and hues–from trauma, to hope, to infinite possibilities. The collective soul at work is a journey of aligning individual abilities and values with the collective, shared purpose, an unfolding identity that is constructed and reconstructed continually by the people who are part of the system; it is a culture of care, support, and fulfillment. It is this collective soul at work that is most capable of intelligent, humane action that benefits the whole.

Engage the feedback loops

How, then, to engage the soul at work? There are no simple solutions. But it begins with altering our perspective. To engage the soul is to see people as people with lives, histories, and dreams, not just as employees. It is to assume an intention of goodwill on their part, and that it is better to err in trusting too much than not enough. It is in recognizing a job well done or efforts made, not just with money but also with a genuine appreciation. It is to remember that people are inventive. It is to believe in them, not just the numbers. This perspective affects the quality of the interactions in the system, creating positive rather than negative feedback loops; that is, creating trust and commitment, not suspicion and disconnection. It is these feedback loops that can transform the system.

To engage the soul at work is to realize that talking to people, listening to them, responding to them is not a waste of time. Rather, this is creating a context where people are more willing to contribute, change and adapt, which in turn makes the organization more adaptable. This human-centered context allows people to further the aims of the organization while retaining their personal integrity and gaining greater personal fulfillment. In other words, when we are talking about the soul at work we are talking about nor settling for less than we can really have: work can be both financially successful and meaningful.

* * * *

Warren Bennis, the international expert on leadership, wrote the following unsolicited e-mail to us: "I have just read your book, and it looks terrific. I would have been glad to have written a blurb for your book before it came out, and hope I have an opportunity to review it. I read--actually, I eyeball and skim--about 150 management books annually. Most are boring, derivative and klunky. Yours is original, exceptional, unique and, well, terrific. Bravo! Warren Bennis."

Roger is a prize-winning author of seventeen science books, including the widely acclaimed "Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos." He received the inaugural Lewis Thomas Award for excellence in the communication of life sciences in 1989, and the 1992 annual award for contribution to issues in conservation by the Society of Conservation Biology. Between 1990 and 1993 he was a visiting professor in biology at Wayne State University and was an Associate of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University, from 1993 to 1998. He speaks frequently at national conferences on complexity science and business.


Birute Regine is a Harvard-educated developmental psychologist and therapist, who specializes in the dynamics and development of relationships. Between 1996 and 1998 she was a visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Women, at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she developed a narrative approach to organizational change. A prize-winning writer, she also speaks frequently at national conferences on complexity science and business.


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