If we are to search for a precipitating event for more overt discussions of ethics and spirituality in the workplace, Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley certainly is a contender. It boosted the ethics in business consulting industry and the discussion of spirituality in the workplace.

Workplace spirituality has continued to gain acceptance as a topic of study in business schools across the country, presumably with application to practice within organizations. Though initially the topic of spirituality in the workplace may have been viewed as a passing fad, it now seems to have reached trend status. Management textbooks routinely include sections about “workplace spirituality,” and professional organizations such as the Academy of Management offer membership in special interest groups emphasizing spirituality.*

Now numbers are all very fine, most often giving a sense of substance to the realities decision makers already know as they continue to struggle to understand, for example, the place of spirituality at work, its implications for character development and the simultaneous rise in requests by some employees to be able to express religious practices in the workplace. It’s like a whole new arena of understanding is needed for what used to be more simple business leadership.

As simple as it may seem at first glance, the issue of spirituality is highly complex. No wonder there still is no agreed upon definition! There are definitions of use in particular situations, or for specific research projects, but by and large, coming up with a globally agreed upon definition is still far from possible. Culture, religious contexts, generational issues,  values and more, complicate the discussion. And you will find even on this site, in different research endeavors as well as our own, a variety of emphasis when articulating “spirituality.”

The opinions expressed below are those of the authors of a study done through the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University:

The six components presented here (sustainability, values, creativity, inclusion, principles, the promotion of vocation) as building blocks toward considering a model of workplace spirituality serve as a partial framework for engaging in a broader conversation of spirituality’s place and influence in Western business culture. The recent trend in businesses within the United States to reclaim and recognize the spiritual nature of people and the importance of incorporating the “whole person” at work will continue to change the face of how business is done in America for the foreseeable future.

This study, as have most continue to do, differentiates significantly between spirituality and (institutional) religion. However, while many studies do, they often go on to point out, as did these authors, that:

Spirituality in this new sense is a private activity, although it may be pursued with a group of the like-minded, it is not ‘institutional’ in that it does not involve membership in a group that has claims on its members.”

This tendency to internalize and privatize spirituality differs from Ken Wilbur’s identification of four dimensions of spirituality, viz-s-viz: (1) inner-individual, (2) outer-individual, (3) innner-communal, and (4) outer-communal. He indicates that most people refer to spirituality  refer to the inner-individual orientation. The outer-individual notes how we experience spirituality is nevertheless a function of the particular culture in which a person is reared and lives and cannot be understood without the deep beliefs, values, rituals, and celebratory acts that constitute the deep meaning of a society.

Outer-individual position holds that spirituality is a function of—that is, is known by—the actions of a person and the effects those actions have on others. According to this position, spirituality is not some mysterious inner force but rather net effect of a person’s acts with regard to others and the world.

Somewhat similarly, the outer-communal position stresses that spirituality is revealed in the structures—that is, the organizations and institutions—that a society enacts and maintains to help the poor and less fortunate. It is also revealed in a society’s celebration of the arts and its places of beauty. **

All this, in short, shows that spirituality is a “high level language”*** in our social lives enabled by many other factors that are explored today through neuroscience as well as theology, philosophy, ethics and many other persuits. And while complex, it too, has syntax and semantics. Historically, spirituality has been considered too “soft and fuzzy” for serious study. Clearly times are changing and finding simple, effective means to address sustainability, values, creativity, inclusion, principles and a sense of calling is not going to go away too quickly!

This short article is meant to broaden our awareness of the growing discussions in the area of spirituality in the workplace that we might enjoy the breadth and diversity and enhance, not limit, our endeavors.


Article Resources


**Mitroff, Ian I, and Elizabeth A. Denton. A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. Print.

*** Akin to the software language of computers. The Microsoft word user can express complex ideas in ways that are far distant to the simplicity of the essential machine language from which all programs derive.