The Spiritual Dimension of Organizational Change


“You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there”

Yogi Berra

The Back-story

Four business people sitting around a gracious dinner table discussing how to design work environments of the future that will offer people an opportunity to better balance work activity and the rest of their lives. All of a sudden, the conversation turns to spirituality in the workplace. Serendipity has struck again. So here we have a Roman Catholic, an evangelical, agnostic and a Buddhist talking the same thing. This deserves attention.

The Plot

It goes without saying that the world of work is changing very quickly these days. The on-rush of technology, globalization of markets, emerging new models of business, and some of the most dramatic changes in demographics in decades have all combined to form the perfect storm for organizational change. Loss of connection, meaning, place and identity are the headlines in our lives. The pace of change is perhaps, more dramatic than humans have seen in 500 years.

Those of you who have followed my work over the past few years have heard this chant before. Drucker’s predictions of the demise of large formal corporations (Will the Corporation Survive?”, The Economist, November 1, 2001); Strauss and Howe’s prognostications of the ‘fourth turning’ ( and countless others who see radical, significant changes in both the process and structure of how we organize our lives to work, play, learn and commune.

An awakening seems to be occurring.

The Antagonists

At the same time the professions we would think would be gearing up to help with the birth of these new social forms, seem to be strangely quiet.  Others focused almost exclusively on change management appear to be stuck somewhere in the 1960’s. Most efforts at large scale change fail. Art Kliener’s “The Age of Heretics” points out that most effort get stuck in conventional thinking.

But these observations are not meant to malign those groups of professionals, but to point to the fact that something is missing. And we obviously have an idea of what that missing ingredient is.

The Protagonist

Change upsets people. It upsets them for a number of reasons. But at the heart of it change does three psychological things:

  • It causes a temporary loss of identity
    • It changes our social status within our peer group and community
    • It creates a shift in old power relationships among members of our social networks

Industrial society has focused us on answering a fundamental metaphysical question (Who am I?) in terms of our relationship to our livelihood. The classical social theorists like Weber, Marx and Durkheim quite adequately have explained these dynamics. But the point is, individuals have linked their identity to their job title and the company they work for. Who they are is what they do!

Again, our status is largely determined by the work we do and by the money we make doing that work. The symbols of status are everywhere. Some lust after the salary so they can possess the symbols. In today’s world that means SUV’s, McMansions, gated communities and boats in the desert. Our perception of self-worth is tied very tightly to our possessions, which emanate from our employment. People know us by our trappings.

Power is ones’ ability to influence or control the behavior of others. Whereas this is somewhat correlated with status is a distinct psychological dimension. An excess or deficit of power has been shown to have very visible effects on our mental states, attitudes and behavior. Our purpose comes into question. Usually in a time of organizational change people perceive their power to be diminished and some external force, which results in outward expressions of hostility and diffuse anxiety, causes that.[1] And that is because they lack an understanding of the larger context of their purpose outside and above the work organization. In other words, they lack a spiritual connection.

We think one of the major reasons orchestrating successful organizational change is so difficult is that most practitioners approach the problem from a perspective of psychological acceptance, or worst yet, rational economic behavior. What’s missing is attention to the spiritual dimension of our lives. Homo Sapiens are descendants of tribal animals who have evolved in a rich symbolic environment. We are after all, human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. And being is the providence of spirituality. Change will only be successful if the spiritual dimension is acknowledged and dealt with![2]

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

                                                                                                Tielhard de Chardin

The Reconciliation

What can be done to interject a spiritual dimension into organizational change?[3] And especially when it is occurring in the context of other failing social institutions – such as political, educational and religious structures. We’re talking here of the spiritual which is not the religious dimension of our lives, although the two are often confused. Spirituality (in our sense here) is more about the personal search for answers and understanding; religion is more of a socially organized effort, or praxis, towards the same end. We believe that within the context of organizational change we need a more personal approach—a spiritual one.

Let’s start with the basics. Identity. Herein lies a glimmer of hope. Younger generations of workers, and those who have been displaced from the industrial workforce, don’t depend on work relationships for identity as much as some other groups. But, nonetheless, it’s an issue, which must be dealt with in the process of change. 

The point here is the outcome of having people find the answer to ‘Who am I?’ comes from somewhere other than their employment. It’s a choice we get to make, not something thrust upon us from the outside. We get to create our own reality.[4]We think the answer lies in a process of self-discovery, guided by a new social network made up of persons from other aspects of our lives such as the community, church, family and professional associates. You have to ‘re-set’ your life guided by your purpose.

Status. Giving up the big house, car(s) and boat can be tough. The essence again lies in a change in perspective. If you are outwardly focused (status determined by others) your perception of self-worth comes from others and you internalize it. But if the focus on self-worth comes from introspection something changes. You become who you define yourself as. Eastern spiritual traditions place an emphasis on work as service. No matter how menial or lofty, work can (should) become right livelihood in Buddhist terms. If you do what gives you and consequentially others joy, clinging to status will disappear as the apparition it truly is.

         “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen”

                                                                           Ralph Waldo Emerson

Power is about purpose – not just the interpersonal view we normally take.  It’s bigger than that.  People cling to power are afraid they have no purpose. It may be that this is the core issue facing the increasing irrelevance of modern corporations. Obscene profits, reckless lack of regard to the environment and abuse of power are hallmarks of toxic work environments. So, how do you help people discover their true purpose in the midst of turbulent times?

The first step in the process is recognizing that all organizational change is really about personal change and growth. When a large number of people engage in this process at the same time—organizations change. There are, however, significant personal, individual barriers that have to be overcome. There is fear of change, uncertainty about the outcome and self-doubt about being able to ‘do it’. We have to realize that this fear, uncertainty and doubt exist and confront it explicitly.

I think it takes extreme personal courage to confront a lifetime of purposelessness. An awakening is required. Each religious tradition has its own answer to this question. But they all come back to a point that the highest purpose for humans is to serve a goal larger than oneself. If this higher purpose is lacking in your ‘work’ your soul is lost. Getting clear on purpose and how to serve that purpose is required to navigate these roiling rapids in the river of change. But take heart there are many paths to enlightenment.

Fade to Black

In conclusion then we assert that there is something lacking in most efforts towards facilitating organizational change. And we observe that organizational change is occurring with increased rapidity and impact. The missing, critical, ingredient is the spiritual dimension of human change, or evolution. There are many pathways toward enlightenment, each guided by a different tradition—and they are all correct.[5]

  • We see a loss of identity, which can be dealt with, be consciously focusing on defining who we are with the help of a re-constructed social network outside of our work.
  • We see a change in status, which can be dealt with an introspective approach to assessing self-worth.
  • We see a letting loose of power, which can be dealt with by seeking a purpose greater than oneself.

We won’t be so bold as to suggest specific ways for specific people to attain these lofty goals. There are a myriad of traditions, creeds and beliefs. We simply encourage you to build your own theology in times of change. In the coming months I will talk about some specific ways to do this such as social network design and a mindfulness way of being and a conscious effort toward well-being.

Authors Note: Kind thanks to my spirit guides for their observations and comments: Rex Miller, Terry Musch, Barry Tuchfeld and Trina Hoefling.


[2] Matthew Fox, “The Reinvention of Work”

[3] May we suggest

[4]  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman,  (1966) “The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge”

[5] Joseph Campbell, “Hero with a Thousand Faces” Http://

By | 2019-06-22T11:18:50-07:00 June 22nd, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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