How Coaching and Spirituality can create a better world

“The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he or she has attained liberation from the self” Albert Einstein.

Linking spirituality to business is a relatively new idea, fuelled by excesses in the business world in the last few decades. Before then it would have seemed odd to suggest that spirituality could have any place in the hard nosed world of business. Most people working in the business sector, particularly Western businesses, would have seen making a profit and spirituality as being mutually incompatible and would have thought it cranky for anyone to believe otherwise. The place for spirituality, for anyone who wanted to take that route, was in church at the weekend or in a non business profession such as the priesthood or writing.

But since the early/mid nineties the situation has changed significantly and there is now an increasing movement towards exploring and experimenting with ways of integrating spirituality into the business world. This is not to suggest in any way that a total transformation has taken place because we don’t have to look too far to see an Enron or a WorldCom or what has taken place in the banking sector, but there is a shift in approach taking place that could be very significant for organisations and the people that work within them.

For a movement to have the transformational power to create a new organisational paradigm, it is often necessary for a number of themes to coalesce to generate the momentum needed to break through old ways of thinking. I believe this may be what is happening with the move towards spirituality in business and some of these influences are outlined below: –

  • Competencies – during the last 15 to 20 years there has been a move towards selecting people, and then facilitating their development, around behavioural competencies. ‘Recruit for attitude, train for skill’ has now become the maxim that drives recruitment in most large organisations. What organisations have found in evaluating people around behavioural constructs is the importance of consistency and predictability with regard to people’s approaches. Lack of consistency is confusing to others and can lead to breakdown of trust, but achieving consistency hints at a degree of maturity and an inner compass that guides people’s responses to situations as opposed to them just reacting to circumstances.
  • Values – many organisations, having seen the power of competency models have then gone on to articulate their organisational values. As Peltier comments in ‘The Psychology of Executive Coaching’ (Peltier 2001) ‘other people are not to be used, and we are not to be used by then. We are not objects, none of us.’ Values statements seek to set out behaviours that will help leaders get results without abusing their people. Generally these values statements attempt to define how people should ‘be’ rather than what they are required to do. Values models can be relatively easy to write and what they espouse is generally unarguable. The problem is, if the day to day reality is far removed from the utopian ideal described in the values statement, then employees quickly become cynical and can feel cheated by their company and its managers. It is only when every employee commits to consistently live the values 100% do you see the benefits start to flow.
  • Companies founded on ideals – one of the best examples of this, until its controversial sale to L’Oreal, was The Body Shop. Anita Roddick’s vision to create a business that was against animal testing and for re-cycling and supporting third world suppliers made an incredibly powerful connection with customers on the High Street. This enabled The Body Shop to grow its business extremely rapidly but also caused a seismic paradigm shift amongst other retailers, who up until this point believed that consumers’ buying decisions were informed by price, expensive packaging, high profile marketing etc. This insight into a key motivation of customers, ie that they ‘care’, caused organisations to look at themselves differently. Now most large companies are at least aware of the relationship between bad PR about pollution, waste and safety issues and their bottom line performance. The more enlightened have recognised their obligation to preserve our environment, create supportive working environments etc and understand that they are evaluated holistically by many consumers, not just for the quality and price of their product or service. Perhaps an even more fundamental lesson that The Body Shop taught the business world was that founding a business on idealistic principles, and then living them authentically, was a sound, profit making business proposition. In effect that it was possible to make profits without compromise. Indeed many people committed to fostering spirituality at work argue that profit can be regarded as the result and not the purpose of an organisation.
  • Evolving motivations of successful business people – many successful businessmen and women, having achieved a certain level of success, often make a decision to ‘give something back’ and become engaged in charitable or community based activity. This philanthropic motivation is clearly illustrated by Bill Gates’ establishment of the ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ that has made enormous donations to fund the search for cures to the world’s most destructive diseases. This type of activity seems to hint at a desire to be a positive force for good in the world, which ultimately transcends the drive to achieve in the corporate world.
  • The collaborative business model – there has been a considerable shift in the primary business model in many industries in recent years, away from competition and towards collaboration and partnership. This is perhaps best illustrated by the automotive industry where the Far Eastern manufacturers have pioneered a model that is predicated on almost total integration and inter-dependency at all levels of the supply chain. This new model has also been employed in many other industries including construction and consultancy. Whereas the conventional competitive model is based on destruction of the competition, this new business paradigm is essentially more creative, in that it is focused on expanding markets through openness, trust and mutual, shared rewards. Stephen Covey in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ (Covey 1992) describes the progression of maturity that people need to undertake to function in this new commercial environment. His view is that to reach this level of mature interdependence individuals have to first progress through dependence and independence. Functioning consistently at this high level can be a real developmental challenge to many people, particularly those that have been exposed for a long time to the conventional competitive business model.
  • Feminism and environmentalism – ‘The Spirit of Work Phenomenon’ (Howard and Welbourn) also draws attention to the impact the broad feminist movement, and more specifically the increasingly influential role women play in the world of work, has had in questioning the dominance of the macho, male dominated culture in many organisations. Likewise the environmental movement has put pressure on organisations and governments to consider consumption in the light of finite resources and to give higher priority to sustainability. These two movements have been united under the label of ecofeminism, which highlights the intuitive, caring, feeling elements of these approaches as a challenge to the perceived over-dominance of rational objectivity seen as the driving culture in so many businesses.
  • A shift in emphasis from the Left Brain to Right Brain – to vastly over simplify things, the left hemisphere of our brain tends to be best at logical, analytical and sequential thinking. The kind of thinking that has created the industrialised Western world. The right hemisphere is where we go to access empathy, creativity and joy; qualities not always associated with modern organisational culture. But if you can put them at the heart of your business you can make amazingly powerful connections with customers as the founders of Innocent Smoothies relate in their book about the company’s growth ‘A Book About Innocent; Our Story and some things we’ve Learned’. As Sue, an Amazon reviewer, comments ‘If you don’t finish reading this book and think… I would love to work for this company, I will be very surprised.’ That is the power of right brain communication – people become fans of a business and it products. If you would like to learn more, Dan Pink’s book ‘A Whole New Mind’ is excellent on the potential of right brain influence in business.
  • The Development of Positive Psychology – which represents a shift in focus for some psychologists away from remedial interventions, focused on people with problems and deficits, towards empowering people who are psychologically ‘healthy’ to recognise their strengths and fully realise their potential. Tal Ben-Shahar’s book ‘Happier’ is a very accessible and inspiring  introduction into some of the ideas that are being developed in this expanding field.

The more coaching I have done the more I have become aware of some of these motivations in my coaching clients, and in myself. When people enter a coaching relationship they are often seeking something deeper and more meaningful than the learning experiences they have experienced up to that point. If this is not their starting point it is often a place they reach as the coaching process develops. This can be manifested in a desire to resolve critical dilemmas that they may be facing and to live more complete, authentic lives. This is often brought to people’s consciousness by the awareness that that they are making compromises at a fundamental level that leaves them feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled, no matter how successful they may be in conventional material terms.

It is often a personal crisis of some kind, bereavement, divorce or being diagnosed with a serious illness that prompts the reflective process. In a brilliant novel about self discovery, ‘Veronika Decides to Die’ Paulo Coelho tells the story of a young girl who survives a suicide attempt to find she has only one week to live because of the damage she has done to her body. This shocks her into confronting her actions and re-evaluating her life, and the journey she embarks on is one of deep spiritual growth. Veronika’s Doctor comments “the happier people can be, the unhappier they are.” This seems to say a lot about modern life and work; the more we make life easier for ourselves, the more we have time to look at who we are, and the less we like what we see. Veronika in reflecting on her life as a person who sticks to decisions, thinks to herself ‘it is true that I have seen many things through to their ultimate consequences, but only unimportant things, liked prolonging a quarrel that could easily have been resolved with an apology. I have been intransigent about the easy things, as if trying to prove to myself how strong and indifferent I was.’  Eventually she comes to an important insight, “when I took the pills, I wanted to kill someone I hated. I didn’t know that other Veronikas existed inside me, Veronikas I could love.” Maybe Spirituality at Work can give us a conscious wake up call to begin doing some of this work before the crisis hits us?

Clearly many people, especially in an organisational context, will not articulate what they are seeking in terms of spirituality but there is a growing sense in coaching that they may actually seeking some form of spiritual goal. It is probably helpful at this point to define what the word spirituality could encompass. It is a word that clearly has a religious dimension but the word tends to have broader interpretations in the worlds of business and coaching.

In ‘The Spirit of Work Phenomenon’ the authors outline the three broad themes that definitions of work based spirituality tend to be grouped around. These are: –

  • The basic feeling of being connected with one’s complete self, others and the entire universe;
  • Underlying principles, e.g. virtue, ethics, values, emotions, wisdom and intuition;
  • The relationship between a personal inner experience and its (positive) manifestation in outer behaviours, principles and practices.

Particular aspects of these concepts of spirituality that attract me in terms of my own development, and also with regard to practical applications in coaching, are those of being authentic, occupying your complete self and being present in the world, in the moment.

To be present, to actually show up and live our lives fully, is a huge challenge for lots of people. This is because a lot of the time our attention is not focused on the here and now but in re-living events from the past or imagining things that will happen in the future. To paraphrase James Joyce ‘we live our lives a short distance away from our bodies’. But as Timothy Gallwey reminds us in ‘The Inner Game of Work’ ‘we have no choice but to stay in the present. We can’t live one moment into the future or relive one moment of the past.’

The power of showing up fully in our lives is brought compellingly to life in the video ‘FISH!’ which illustrates the business philosophy of the Pike Place Fish Market team in Seattle. Their philosophy, built around 4 central principles, Play, Choose your Attitude, Be Present and Make their Day is detailed in the book ‘FISH!’ (Christensen, Lundin and Paul). The energy, connection with customers and sense of fun that living these 4 principles creates is incredible and has made what is a small, and relatively prosaic business, world renowned. All of the principles are vital but the over-riding impression that one is left with, is of a team of people living life to the full and making the most of every second for themselves, their customers and their colleagues; in essence being present. This has enabled them, in effect, to create a fan base for their business, something also achieved by Innocent, The Body Shop and probably most notably by Apple

Deep down most of us would like to live our lives in this fully engaged manner but barriers block us from reaching an enhanced state of existence. In the book ‘The Wisdom of the Enneagram’ Don Riso and Russ Hudson describe this state of being blocked very poetically; ‘It is as though we were given a mansion to live in, with rich furnishings and beautifully kept grounds, but we have confined ourselves to a small dark closet in the basement. Most of us have even forgotten that the mansion exists, or that we are really the owner.’

A further theme is the challenge of being authentic and to be true to our essential selves so that we can live without compromise. In ‘The Spirit of Work Phenomenon’ this concept is distilled into one word – integrity. The authors say ‘when we live and work with integrity, we are authentic and whole. There is a beautiful resonance among body, mind and spirit, which leads to further resonance between our values and actions, and between ourselves and the rest of creation.’

Other themes that stand out for me are related to connection with, and care for, our environment and our planet and the concept of flow. So a potential outcome of developing a more spiritual path in life would be a much greater sense of connectedness with everything around us and a feeling of achieving great things without conscious effort or having to ‘force’ things. Again this is summed up perfectly in a quote from Hudson and Riso ‘a tree does not have to do anything to go from a bud to a flower to a fruit; it is an organic, natural process, and the soul wants to unfold in the same way.’

Returning to ‘The Wisdom of the Enneagram’ the book offers ‘Seven Tools for Transformation’ to those interested in embarking on the journey towards spirituality. These comprise Seeking Truth, Not Doing, Being Open, Getting Support, Learning from Everything, Cultivating a real Love of Self and Having a Practice e.g. prayer or meditation. Where these lead to is summarised at the end of the book in a section headed ‘Beyond Personality’ which includes the following; ‘what we must learn is to stop running away from ourselves. Spiritual work is a matter of subtraction, of letting go, rather than adding anything to what is already present.’

This idea is summed in a beautiful quote from Marianne Williamson ‘When Michelangelo was asked how he created a piece of sculpture, he answered that the statue already existed within the marble…. Michelangelo’s job, as he saw it, was to get rid of the excess marble that surrounded God’s creation. So it is with you. The perfect you isn’t something you need to create, because God already created it…. Your job is to allow the Holy Spirit to remove the fearful thinking that surrounds your perfect self.’

This whole approach challenges the very foundations on which so much of western business practice is based. ‘The Spirit of Work Phenomenon’ refers to the concept of the unconscious shadow, our dark side, which can exert a negative control over so much of our behaviour from an organisational perspective. ‘Each organisation contains two organisations, one visible, articulated, expressed in stated goals, policy statements and procedural manuals; the other invisible, lying quietly under the surface, but actually determining what will happen in the long run. We call this unseen force the organisational unconscious.’ This I feel is the opportunity for the coaching profession; to enable organisations to confront this hidden unconscious and transform their work spaces into positive, empowering, happy, high energy, creative, productive environments.

The book quotes Richard Bentley on his impressions of the International Coach Federation in 2003. ‘The two insights I took away were that coaching is definitely having a real impact across the world. There was a real sense of concern amongst those present that the world and its citizens may destroy themselves unless it develops a new set of values – the post-Enron effect. The key message I want to share with you is that coaching as a profession is not peaking, it is just starting!’

‘Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement’ Buddha.

Some Reading Recommendations

Ben-Shahar T 2007, Happier (New York: McGraw Hill)

Christensen J, Lundin S C, and Paul H J 2000, Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results (New York: Hyperion)

Coelho P 2000, Veronika Decides to Die (London: HarperCollinsPublishers)

Covey S R 1992, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People 2nd edition   (London: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd)

Gallwey T 2000, The Inner Game of Work (New York: Random House)

Hargrove R 2003, Masterful Coaching (San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc)

Howard S and Welbourn D 2004, The Spirit of Work Phenomenon (London: Azure)

Hudson R and Riso D R 1999, The Wisdom of the Enneagram (New York: Bantam Books)

Jago W and McDermott I 2002, The NLP Coach ( London: Piatkus Books Ltd)

Peltier B 2001, The Psychology of Executive Coaching (New York: Brunner-Routledge)

Pink D 2008, A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future (London: Marshall Cavendish)

Semler R 1995, Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace (Clayton: Warner Books)

Semler R 2003, The Seven-Day Weekend (London: The Random House Group)

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