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Spirituality in the workplace – to be avoided or embraced?


Is there place for Spirituality in the workplace?

If you think making place for spirituality in the workplace sounds like a licence for lunacy – read on, you may just be surprised by what thought leaders are saying on the topic.

In this blog article we explore a framework for how to think about and deal with spirituality in the workplace.



Is there a place for spirituality in the workplace?

By Danie Eksteen- This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

One of the most incredible joys of our technology enabled age is the ease with which it allows us to connect and deliberate with other professionals throughout the world. About a year ago I stumbled upon a LinkedIn enabled discussion that considered the question: Is there a place for spirituality in the workplace? The relevance of the topic was clear from the fact that the discussion at the time was by far the most commented on in the OD Network (ODN) and it had been going on for several months before I picked up on it. I found it fascinating (more as a voyeur than participant) and ever since have intended to write a newsletter on the topic.

What does it mean – spirituality first, and then an expression of it in the workplace? Why is it perceived by many as a no-go area? In this newsletter we will explore some of these questions.

Understanding individual spirituality

At the outset we need to note that there are many different opinions and definitions of spirituality. We want to suggest that trying to define spirituality requires a two step interrogation,

    • firstly about the ‘spirit’ or internal/personal part of the word; and
    • secondly, the ‘uality’ or external or expressive part of the word.

So what does the ‘spirit’ part mean? In 1999 the Management Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan Management Review published the results of an extensive research study into spirituality in the workplace conducted by Mitroff and Denton – their sample group of a few hundred having consisted of mostly HR Executives and Senior Managers on the U.S. West Coast. The consolidated input of this group came up with a definition of spirituality that started as ‘the basic feeling of being connected with one’s complete self....’. This integration of the complete self is comparable to what the psychologist Jung referred to as individuation or the bringing together of all aspects of the complete self.

The MIT group did not go as far as the French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said that humans are not physical beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a physical experience. However, the majority of those who took part seemed to agree that ‘complete self’ comprised of more than physical and emotional aspects and that each of us has a ‘spirit’. In fact one of the common criticisms levelled against organisations was the sense that people still need to compartmentalise themselves and distinguish between the tangible physical and brains vs. intangible emotion and spirit.

A place for spirit in the workplace?

So should I (or can I) leave my ‘spirit’ at home when I go to work? As part of the MIT study the respondents were asked what gave them the most meaning and purpose in their jobs and rated the highest as ‘the ability to realise my full potential as a person’; linked to this were comments about the ability to bring their ‘complete selves’ to work. This closely correlates with other studies on employee engagement and confirms Maslow’s basic argument that once a certain level of financial need is addressed, higher needs come into play and the desire for self actualisation (and integration of self) becomes paramount.

Prof. Ian I. Mitroff, the co author of the MIT study, recently contributed to Marshall Goldsmith’s (a la Now Discover your strengths et al) HBR Blog and said that spirituality in the workplace is about recognising that when people come to work, they do not leave their ‘spiritual sides’ at home. While the ‘whole person walks in the door every day’, people are often forced to fragment themselves into many disconnected pieces. We would agree that (irrespective of how you describe or understand spirit) organisations have to allow people to bring their complete selves to work in order to have optimally engaged and effective employees.

Individual spirituality expressed in the workplace

The ‘uality’ part of spirituality seems to describe how the individual experience of the spirit part of being is expressed or translated into actions outside of the individual.

The sample group in the MIT study shows some divergence when it gets to the ‘uality’ part of the word; individuals saw it as one or a combination of the following elements:

    • a belief in the extension of the internal connectedness described above to ‘others and or the entire universe’.
    • a belief in a supreme power, force or God that affects all things and provides a higher level of meaning.
    • specific religious or spiritual practices or traditions.

So how do we acknowledge and allow the spiritual selves of individuals into the workplace within the context of such diversity of expression of spirituality? A good starting point would be the most basic legal principle (which is a good yardstick for all things relating to diversity) namely that my rights only stretch so far as they do not infringe on the rights of another. This implies that as far as individual expression of spirituality is concerned we need to go about with caution and sensitivity, and that for some types of public expression there is probably not space within a diverse organisation.

Some expressions of individual spirituality in organisations that we have experienced as non intrusive and respectful of others have included:

    • consensual open discussions between colleagues about their beliefs and motivations;
    • prayer meetings behind closed doors (by different religious groups);
    • quiet spaces for meditation or reflection;
    • observing religious holidays and fasts.

Spirituality as key to diversity 

We have, in a previous newsletter, argued that one of the most important keys to unlocking the glass barriers of diversity (here used in its broadest sense, i.e. including race, culture, gender, generation, religion etc.) is for people from different backgrounds to really talk about their differences and explore understanding the other’s culture, history and, in the context of this newsletter, spirituality. Once people have really met (seen each other’s heart) and know/understand each other on the level of personal experience, emotions and beliefs, our experience has been that many obvious barriers fall away and real connection becomes possible.

However, as spiritual expression says something about our deepest being (spirit), it is not a space to be rushed into. Before embarking on questions about another’s individual spirituality we would suggest you consider the following questions:

    • Have you taken the time to understand the other’s story (culture, history, experiences etc)?
    • Have you established a trust relationship?
    • Have you seen the heart of the other (as conveyed in the Indian greeting ‘Namaste’) and can you really approach them with acceptance and respect, irrespective of who they are?
    • Are you really open and willing to suspend your own beliefs and prejudices for purpose of your discussion?
    • Are you willing to really listen, with the intent of truly understanding the heart of the other?

If another’s spirituality (or expression of their deepest being) is approached with this attitude and heart it is not a scary or dangerous place to go, and you may be surprised by the level of openness and deep human connection across diversity barriers that become possible (as well as the personal growth that might be in it for you).

Organisational spirituality

Rama Rao, in an article on workplace spirituality (citeMAN Network), says that organisations that promote a spiritual culture recognise that employees have both a mind and a spirit, seek to find meaning and purpose in their work, and desire to connect with other employees and be part of a community’.

So if human beings generally strive for an integration of all of whom they are (physical, emotional, spiritual), and if the ability to express all of that and realise full individual potential within community are keys to giving human beings meaning and purpose, how should organisations promote a spiritual culture?

The MIT study found five different ways in which organisations deal with the issue of spirituality:

      1. Religious based organisations that are either positive about religion and negative about spirituality or positive about both
      2. The second group are conceptually negative about religion and positive about spirituality. In this group they identify three types of organisations:
          1. Evolutionary organisations that began with a strong association with one religion but over time have evolved a more ecumenical approach
          2. Recovering organisations that use the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to foster spirituality – they found this often where one or more key executives are recovering addicts.
          3. Socially responsible organisations (meaning something slightly different from the way the expression is used in the South African business context) – these businesses are driven by spiritual principles/values that are applied directly for the betterment of society.
      3. Values based organisations where the founders of the organisation are driven by philosophical principles or  values that are not aligned or associated with     a specific religion or spirituality.  

We want to suggest that the above groups could also be segmented along the following lines:

      1. organisational spirituality that is in essence an extension of how some or many of the leaders in the organisation express their own spirituality through external religious or spiritual entities (which could include a) – b)ii.); and
      2. organisations that express their collective/ communal spirituality through identified ethics, values, principles and causes that deeply resonate with the spirits (hearts?) of the vast majority of the members of the organisation without an expressed connection to any specific external religious or spiritual entity.

Rao gives the following example characteristics of organisational spirituality – which we think can be found in both types A and B organisational spirituality and exclude anything that may offend any specific group of employees:

    • Strong sense of purpose: all members know why the organisation exists and what it values.
    • Focus on individual development and empowerment: employees are valuable and need to be nurtured to help them grow. This is similar to the care and growth principles that form the basis of the Strategic Human Capital Consulting Learning Leaders Level 2 leadership development workshop.
    • Trust, honesty and openness: organisational member relationships are characterised by mutual trust, honesty and openness towards each other and their clients.
    • Respectful human capital practices: people are not merely seen as means to an end but as an end in themselves and organisational actions, processes and practices support that – even in times of economic downturn.

At Strategic Human Capital Consulting we are of the opinion that the following are very practical steps that can assist you in establishing/ building a spiritual organisation:

    • Identify the common denominator values that speak deeply to most of your human capital – a tool like the Barrett Values assessment has shown to assist effectively in achieving this.
    • Communicate extensively, openly and inclusively about strategy and the organisational future.
    • Treat people as capital, that you protect and invest in, and not simply a resource and the first place you start looking for savings in economic downturn.  
    • Acknowledge individual spirituality as part of what makes complete human beings and create an environment where respectful expressions are allowed.

Spirituality and leadership

Both the Built to Last and Good to Great studies (Collins and Porras) provide ample proof of organisational success where leaders have established as the glue of their organisations ethics, values, principles or causes – our type ‘B’ spirituality. But what is the relevance of spirituality for leading people specifically?

Chris Holland, the Founder of the Holland Group describes spirituality as concerning itself with those intangible aspects of ourselves that are connected with such things as purpose, fulfilment, meaning, integrity and generosity. Within a framework that is very similar to our type ‘B’ spirituality described he says that: ‘...I see leadership as a sacred trust. More than almost any other role, leadership has the power to affect a person’s development and full expression of his or her talent in the world ...’ However, how often have we all seen the opposite – people wracked with anxiety, fear, rage, and sense of failure in response to a boss’ dismissive behaviour. Holland continues to say that: ‘expanding from this one-on-one, deeply personal relationship (personal as in meaningful rather than private) we move to the experience of the employee’s sense of value and self-actualisation in the context of the team, the department, the cross-organisational process, and the organisation as a whole, including external partners and collaborators. To create the environment within which the most number of people experience this fulfilling state, contributing to the max of their capabilities and holding on to a sense of value, belonging, and purpose, is indeed spiritual.’

We believe that caring for and growing others to achieve their purposes as ends in themselves is leadership with a spiritual dimension. Here are a few questions we suggest you ask yourself to see if this is true about your leadership:

    • Do you know the deepest aspirations of your employees and are you helping them achieve these?
    • Are your employees empowered through appropriate delegation practices?
    • Do you regularly take the time to ask your employees how they are, and allow them time to tell you?
    • Are you trusted because of the integrity and consistency with which you treat your people?
    • Do you personally operate from a deep sense of purpose? 

How can we help you?

Strategic Human Capital Consulting has a passion for and commitment to facilitating individual and organisational growth in a significant and sustainable manner. We want to unlock and ignite the human energy in organisations and through this build amazing companies that consistently achieve their business strategies. We believe that human energy is unlocked and driven by the opportunity to individually (and collectively) express our talents (and purposes) as integrated beings in environments where both our intellectual, spiritual and emotional selves are acknowledged and cared for. Whether in a unit or organisational context Strategic Human Capital Consulting has the tools and experience to assist you in establishing this.


Because of the potential sensitive nature of this topic we ran the beta draft of this Newsletter by a few critical thinking friends from a spectrum of spiritual persuasions – we would like to thank them for their time and extremely valuable input.


Mitroff and Denton, A Study of Spirituality in the Workplace, Sloan Management review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, summer 1999, volume 40, number 4
Marshall Goldsmith & Dr. Ian I. Mitroff, Preparing Your Company for a Crisis, HBR Blog Network, September 15, 2008,
V S Rama Rao, What is Workplace Spirituality?, March 2, 2010,
V S Rama Rao, Workplace spirituality, September 18, 2008,
Chris Holland, Founder of Holland Group, LinkedIn OD Network Blog discussion, Spirituality in the Workplace, 2009 - 2010


#1 Danie
2012-06-04 10:50
There is a great discussion around this Newsletter that you can follow at the LinkedIn Organisational Development Netwpork Group at

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