Belief and Organization

The writer Karen Armstrong begins A History of God stating:

There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them (page 1).

In other words, with the exception of the truly nihilistic among us, we all believe that certain things are true but we don’t all have the necessary faith that they will make a difference in our lives in a real, tangible, way. In the US today voters may believe that Obama, Romney or the other candidates are the best possible leaders of that nation, but if this isn’t backed up by a faith that they can improve the lot of the American population, then this won’t make much difference.  This Saturday, Ireland will vote on the prioritization of children’s rights in a referendum. The debate on the Children’s Referendum has been characterized by arguments which might suggest that we are are being asked to vote on whether we have faith in whether government can provide better care for children than families. 

Up to about 10 years ago, management studies shied away from issues of faith, seeing it as external to the concerns of business.  There has been a radical sea-change in this recently with an explosion of article in both the mainstream and critical management literature, special interest groups and the advent of a specialist peer-reviewed journal.  Some of the research and writing in this field promotes religious faith as something which has been capitalized on by oppressive organisational actors in order to colonize the souls of employees as a source of competitive advantage.  Others celebrate how work has been spiritualized in a way which leads to greater fulfilment for those who do it.

Besides these perspectives, most scholars of religion view belief and faith as a key way of telling us how individuals, communities and societies make sense of themselves and their mortality in the world.  So, whether we believe or not, faith is a challenging but ewarding field of study that can tell us much about ourselves, our fears and our aspirations.  The management scholars who similarly try to make sense of how faith influence work and organisational life try not to condemn or celebrate belief, but rather look at what it does for people, and how it in turn changes the way we work. 

There is nothing new in this of course: Max Weber drew clear connections between the success of capitalism and certain Protestant Communities over 100 years ago.  What is new, however, are the social and environmental issues that have fundamentally changed capitalism since Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism.  These new relationships which people have with organisational life is the subject of a newly published collection titled Belief & Organization which attempts to make sense of how various faith traditions and ethical positions have engaged with this broad field. 

My doctoral research on management development, led me to a branch of workplace spirituality studies known as spiritual management development [or SMD].  SMD relies heavily on new age beliefs about the ability to find authentic self-hood through non-traditional engagement in religious practices, especially those which are outside the mainstream.  In a chapter in Belief & Organization that is co-written with Emma Bell and Scott Taylor, we examine another aspect of this; the emergence of a spiritual work ethic which stems from the high-point of the new age movement in the 1960s and feminist eco-spirituality.  

Although there is a real danger that this work ethic will be annexed by capitalist organisations (a practice which is excellently explored by Adrian Parr in Hijacking Sustainability), it’s emergence also provides real opportunities for resisting this and permitting the emergence of new relationships with ones work and new organisational forms.