Signs of the Spirit: Critical Reflections on the Instrumentality of Workplace Spirituality

Research Cluster

Speaker:Professor Peter Case, Professor Jonathan Gosling, Professor of Organization Studies, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, Director of the Centre for Leadership Studies, and Head of Executive Education in the University of Exeter Business School.
Date: Tuesday 5 February 2008
Time: 16:00
Location: Conference Room 2, Xfi

Further details

To suggest that there has been a growing interest in workplace spirituality in recent years would be to court understatement. The relatively early stirrings of attention given to the subject in the 1990s (for example, Senge 1990, Management Education and Development 1992) has given way to a veritable flood of analysis, diagnosis and prescription on the part of organizational scholars, practitioners and popular management writers . Academic interest in the subject is following the corporate trend for workshops, seminars, culture change and corporate transformation programmes that are increasingly aimed at harnessing not only the mind and body of employees but also their spiritual essence or soul. Major companies, such as, Apple, Ford, GlaxoSmithKlyne, McDonalds, Nike, Shell Oil and the WorldBank are embracing this recent drive to secure competitive advantage through the appropriation of employee spirituality (see Casey 2002; Mitroff and Denton 1999a, 1999b). Several academic journals, such as Journal of Adult Development (2001, 2002), Journal of Management Inquiry (2005), Journal of Organizational Change Management (1999, 2003) and The Leadership Quarterly (2005), for example, have dedicated special issues to the theme of spirituality and there is also a new journal - The Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion - launched in 2004, specifically tailored to what is rapidly emerging as a specialist subfield of organization and management studies. Similarly, the number of conferences and websites dedicated to workplace spirituality is proliferating. 1999 saw the creation of an Academy of Management special interest group entitled, ‘Management, Spirituality & Religion’ which has grown considerably and now enjoys a membership in excess of 700 . Indeed, ‘spirituality’ has even entered the heretofore relatively atheistic (or at least agnostic) confines of the European-based Critical Management Studies (CMS) community in the guise of streams within the biannual international conference. What are scholars and practitioners who are skeptical about these developments to make of the current state of affairs and what do we read from these extant ‘signs of the spirit’ for the future of workplace relations and practices?

As two scholars with a personal and professional interest in ‘spirituality’ (acknowledging, from the outset, the semantic ambiguities of this term), we seek in this paper to outline some critical thoughts on the appropriation of matters spiritual within predominantly capitalist forms of organization. Despite what might be inferred from the burgeoning writing on spirituality, explorations of the relationship between the organization of work, religion and spiritual life is hardly new to social science. Indeed, analysis of this nexus of relationships is foundational to the social theorizing of Weber, Marx, Durkheim and Freud. It is also present, either explicitly or implicitly, in theories of post-modern social organization, such as propounded by Bauman, Beck, Foucault and Giddens. However, much of what passes as original contributions to the debate on spirituality – with some notable exceptions - appears to be written in blind ignorance of this legacy, preferring, instead, to treat spirituality in ahistorical and apolitical terms as yet another neutral resource to be harnessed and husbanded by the erstwhile custodians of organizational performance. In short, much of the contemporary literature on spirituality is narrowly utilitarian and instrumental in its intent, often concerned directly to commodify spirituality. Bell and Taylor (2003), Casey (2002), Carrette and King (2005) and Roberts (2001) have all raised concerns about this tendency and attempted to account for the instrumental rediscovery of organizational spirituality through the invocation of relevant social theory. We shall draw selectively on insights offered by these scholars in our critique of claims made within certain strands of workplace spirituality literature.

To this end, we present a brief review of the workplace spirituality literature, paying particular attention to theoretical and empirical contributions that adopt an instrumental and utilitarian attitude toward the subject. We raise concerns about the predication, definition and representation of ‘spirituality’ in such projects, drawing on extracts from contributions to support and illustrate our critique. Workplace spirituality in general and spiritual leadership theory (SLT), in particular, can be understood as continuing a well-established trajectory within utilitarian approaches to organizational behaviour. It represents the latest turn of a wheel that positions organizational subjects within discourses of power and governmentality (Burchell et al. 1991, Foucault 1991 [1978]), promoting a rhetoric which connects a highly attenuated version of ‘spirituality’ with organizational performativity (Lyotard 1984). Our intention in generating this critique is not wholesale to disparage interest in workplace spirituality and leadership, but to suggest that much more nuanced theorisation of the field is needed along with interpretative approaches that reflect the subtlety of the terrain. To repeat an apocryphal methodological cliché: if one is armed only with a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. This is the current state of affairs found in certain sections of the field, we suggest, and there is a desperate need for critical reflexivity if a great deal of ethical damage in the name of workplace spirituality is to be avoided.

We conclude the paper with a proposal to extend Etzioni’s (1971 [1961])) typology of complex organizations beyond the original three forms of relationship (Coercive, Utilitarian and Normative) to include a fourth , ‘Spiritual’. This, we propose, provides a framework that allows us to critically examine the power relations in organizations from a position that is ‘at home with’ transcendent reality.


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