Spirituality In Business

Actually practiced, it can increase fun, productivity, and resiliency

One of the articles in Living Business (IC#11)
Originally published in Autumn 1985 on page 43
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

James Ritscher is a management consultant and an active member of the Organizational Transformation network. He is also the coordinator for the new Spirit in Business Association. For information, contact him at James A. Ritscher Associates, 1060 Beacon St., Brookline MA 02146 or 617/277-1625. © 1985 lames A. Ritscher

WHEN I MENTION the field of spirituality in business, I love to watch the reactions on people’s faces. Some people ask me, "What group are you with?" In one case, a woman with whom I was having a pleasant chat quickly ended the conversation. She later revealed that she thought that I was with some cult, and that I was about to move into, "Would you like to buy one of our publications?" One person said, "Oh, do you mean prayer breakfasts?" Others look at me blankly like I just committed blasphemy: joining the sacred and the profane.

So what is it I’m talking about, then, as "Spirituality in Business"? To begin with, I am not referring to religion. A religion is an organization which professes to provide spiritual experience to groups of people. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s beside the point here.

Spirituality, however, is more an individual matter; it does not rely on an external organization. Rather, spirituality is an experience of depth in life, it is living life with heart rather than just superficially. For some, spirituality involves a belief in a God. For others, it takes different forms. But in any case, spirituality is an experience that there is something more to life than just our narrow, ego-oriented view of it.

People who have developed the spiritual side of their life typically have a quality of lightness, appreciation and humor. They bring a sense of "all-rightness" and optimism to life, even in the face of problems. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They are fully alive, and they radiate this aliveness to others.

Naturally, there is a clash between this point of view and the culture of many businesses. Business is often considered hard, mechanical, hierarchical, controlling, and determined primarily by financial considerations. Spiritual people have a much more humanistic approach. But the clash between these two points of view is a healthy one. Spiritual people sometimes forget that it’s impossible to run an organization without structure and financial control. Business people sometimes forget that it’s impossible (or at best, grossly inefficient) to run a business without spirit.

As I attend conferences around the country, I am amazed at the amount of interest in this field of spirituality in business. Much of the interest comes from people who have done personal spiritual work and are interested in bringing some part of that experience into the workplace. They are not content to hear the answer, "It can’t be done." I expect that, in response, businesses will gradually start to stretch and shift. As a result, more and more businesses will start to achieve success in the financial and the more humanistic realms simultaneously.


The first thing to see about such an organization (and this sometimes surprises people) is that it’s quite ordinary. A "spiritual organization" looks like any other organization. People come in, make telephone calls, talk to each other, make sales, and do all the normal things that people in business do. People have hard times, fight with each other, get their ego’s bruised – just as in any other business. And if you think about it, how could it ever be different? We sometimes have utopian expectations of human conduct.

The differences between spiritual organizations and others are very subtle and they have a great deal to do with how we hold and react to the events that surround us. In a spiritual organization, people are much clearer that they are there of their own choosing and that they are masters of their own destiny. People are much less likely to think that they are victims. People tend to treat each experience as an opportunity for personal growth. Thus when they get angry or their ego gets bruised, they are more able to work with those situations in constructive ways.

Thus a spiritual organization differs from the more ordinary kind in that it has much better "self-righting" mechanisms. When something goes wrong, people have a natural tendency to bring it back on course, even if that takes a little emotional risk. In other organizations, everywhere you look things have gone wrong – people don’t keep agreements, people are angry with each other, teamwork is inadequate, managers treat their subordinates like children rather than delegating responsibility – but these problems get locked in because it takes too much risk to confront and correct them. In a spiritual business, two forces work to correct such problems:

  • The organization as a whole has a commitment to deal with and resolve such problems – a predisposition to handling them, you might say.
  • The individual employees have greater self-mastery and higher self-respect, and thus will not allow themselves to be imposed upon.

These two forces create a much higher chance that problems will get confronted and corrected, and contribute to the organization’s "self-righting" mechanism.

Another characteristic of a spiritual organization is that it has a visionary focus. The organization as a whole has a vision, one that the employees are attracted to. People are there for a common reason, a reason that excites them and causes them to want to put in their own energy. People feel ownership and commitment to a common purpose.


What do we mean when we talk about applying spirituality to organizations? Assume that you have some influence in your organization. How would you go about creating an organization (or a department) that has a spiritual focus?

The quick answer is, "very carefully." There is no formula. You decide where you want to go and go there. The piece that is usually missing in most organizations is that people don’t really decide where they want to go.

This is why visioning work is so important in building a spiritual organization. It’s important to develop a shared vision that people can participate in and support. The vision statement should include some reference to both personal need and organizational needs.

In practice, the process of creating this vision does not have to be overburdened with trappings of spirituality. Indeed, the qualities that develop a spiritual organization are quite ordinary – though I must say, easier to talk about than to practice. They include:

  • Create a shared vision.
  • Maintain a high level of individual and organizational integrity. Keep agreements.
  • Create an organizational culture that values service, excellence, dedication, contact with the customer, and action over personal advancement and personal gain.
  • Create cooperation, communication, and community.
  • Create a supportive environment for the individual.
  • Create an organizational culture that supports personal growth.

Practicing these injunctions creates a vessel of the same substance as "spirituality" – whether or not the word spirituality is used. In the realm of the spiritual, action is everything; words are nothing.

One important caution if you are trying to apply these principles: don’t take away with the right hand what you have created with the left. One false gesture will desecrate the vessel. One should not preach caring, integrity, support and so on if one does not practice it.

Spirituality pertains to an experience of spirit, and I believe that the business community is going to see that spirit is a matter of utmost concern to them. Spirit has to do with action and productivity. If people are not enthusiastic about their work, the work will suffer. We are coming into a time in which it is becoming obvious that a new way of structuring our organizations is vital for our happiness and productivity. We are just starting to discover that we can structure work so that it is enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive.

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