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The Hole in the Soul of Business

by Gary Hamel on February 9, 2011


gary-hamel's picture

The Hole in the Soul of Business

I’m a big fan of New Yorker cartoons. There’s usually at least one in every issue that provokes a wry smile or a wince of self-recognition. While I’ve never actually participated in the magazine’s weekly caption competition, I occasionally gin up a prospective entry. Last week, the contest featured a drawing of a couple sitting in a living room. The husband (perhaps?) was perusing a newspaper on the sofa while his wife lounged in a nearby armchair. She was a mermaid—naked from the waist up, her large flipper resting demurely on the floor. With her head angled towards her companion and her mouth open in mid-sentence, I imagined her to be saying: “After ten years, I think you could have learned to scuba dive,” or “Hiking in the Alps again? I thought we could take a beach holiday this year.”

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows an office worker slumped against the wall, clutching his chest. As worried colleagues rush to aid the stricken employee, he mumbles: “Don’t worry, it was just a fleeting sense of purpose.”

These sardonic portraits of the human condition resonate with us because they capture something deep and true. The mermaid-out-of-water speaks to the challenges of mutual accommodation that confront any couple in a long-term relationship, while the temporarily and implausibly ardent employee reminds us that the typical corporate office is an emotional vacuum chamber. I can’t offer you any insights if you’re trying to synch up with your partner, but I do have a few observations about the paucity of purpose in the average corporation.

A Towers Watson global workforce study found that only 20% of employees are truly engaged in their work — heart and soul. As a student of management, I’m depressed by the fact that so many people find work depressing.

In the study, respondents laid much of the blame for their lassitude on uncommunicative and egocentric managers, but I wonder if there’s not some deeper organizational reality that bleeds the vitality and enthusiasm out of people at work.

Here’s an experiment for you. Pull together your company’s latest annual report, its mission statement, and your CEOs last few blog posts. Read through these documents and note the key phrases. Make a list of oft-repeated words. Now do a little content analysis. What are the goals and ideas that get a lot of airtime in your company? It’s probably notions like superiority, advantage, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, accountability, and efficiency. Nothing wrong with this, but do these goals quicken your pulse? Do they speak to your heart? Are they “good” in any cosmic sense?

Now think about Michelangelo, Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, William Wilberforce. Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. What were the ideals that inspired these individuals to acts of greatness? Was it anything on your list of commercial values? Probably not. Remarkable contributions are typically spawned by a passionate commitment to transcendent values such as beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor.

I talk to a lot of CEOs, and every one professes a commitment to building a “high performance” organization—but is this really possible if the core values of the corporation are venal rather than venerable? I think not. And that’s why humanizing the language and practice of management is a business imperative (as well as a moral duty).

A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. In so doing, it transforms great talent into exceptional accomplishment. That’s a fact—and it leaves me wondering: Why are words like “love,” “devotion” and “honor” so seldom heard within the halls of corporate-dom? Why are the ideals that matter most to human beings the ones that are most notably absent in managerial discourse?

John Mackey, the co-founder of Whole Foods Markets, once remarked that he wanted to build a company based on love instead of fear. Mackey’s not a utopian idealist, and his unflinching libertarian views are off-putting to some. Yet few would argue with the goal of creating an organization that embodies the values of trust, generosity and forbearance. Yet a gut-level commitment to building an organization infused with the spirit of charity is far more radical and weird than it might appear.

If you doubt that, here’s another experiment. The next time you’re stuck in a corporate staff meeting, wait until everyone’s eyes have begun to glaze over from PowerPoint fatigue and then get up and announce that what your company really needs is a lot more luuuuuv. When addressing a large group of managers, I often challenge them to stand up for love (or beauty or justice or truth) in just this way. “When you get back to work, tell your boss your company has a love deficit.” This suggestions invariably provokes a wave of nervous laughter, which has always struck me as a bit strange. Why is it that managers are so willing to acknowledge the idea of a company dedicated to timeless human values and yet so unwilling to become practical advocates for those values within their own organizations? I have a hunch. I think corporate life is so manifestly inhuman—so mechanical, mundane and materialistic—that any attempt to inject a spiritual note into the overtly secular proceedings just feels wildly out of place—the workplace equivalent of reading a Bible in a brothel.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with utilitarian values like profit, advantage and efficiency, but they lack nobility. Reflect for a moment on the avarice and irresponsibility that produced the recent banking crisis, and wreaked havoc at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and a host of other scandal-plagued companies. If corporate leaders and their acolytes are not slaves to some meritorious social purpose, they run the risk of being enslaved by their own ignoble appetites. An uplifting sense of purpose is more than an impetus for individual accomplishment, it is also a necessary insurance policy against expediency and impropriety.

Every organization is “values-driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?

There was a time when Disney was in the joy business. Animators, theme park employees and executives were united in their quest to wring gasps of wonderment and delight from children across the globe. Today, Apple is in the beauty business. It uses its prodigious software and design talents to produce products and services that are aesthetic stand-outs. There are many within Google who believe their company is in the wisdom business, who talk about raising the world’s IQ, democratizing knowledge and empowering people with information. Sadly, though, this kind of dedication to big-hearted goals and high-minded ideals is all too rare in business. Nevertheless, I believe that long-lasting success, both personal and corporate, stems from an allegiance to the sublime and the majestic.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, held a similar view, which he expressed forcefully in “Man’s Search for Meaning:” “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended consequence of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself . . ..”

Which brings me back to my worry. Given all this, why is the language of business so sterile, so uninspiring and so relentlessly banal? Is it because business is the province of engineers and economists rather than artists and theologians? Is it because the emphasis on rationality and pragmatism squashes idealism? I’m not sure. But I know this—customers, investors, taxpayers and policymakers believe there’s a hole in the soul of business. The only way for managers to change this fact, and regain the moral high ground, is to embrace what Socrates called the good, the just and the beautiful.

So, dear reader, a couple of questions for you: Why do you believe the language of beauty, love, justice and service is so notably absent in the corporate realm? And what would you do to remedy that fact?

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maryann-farrugia's picture

Sometimes they find work depressing because of their surroundings, especially the treatment. There's a quote that says that you go where you are appreciated, not where you are tolerated. Language can be also be very important here. Visit Maryann Farrugia on LinkedIn.

mark-vandeneijnde's picture
Language is the tip of the iceberg. It represents our thoughts which are an extension of our beliefs. So to change the language in organizations we need to encourage deep personal work that helps us become more aware of our beliefs and how they drive behavior. This empowers us to choose the beliefs that serve us and let go of the ones that don't.

We need leaders who can envision exciting new realities, the kinds that challenge existing paradigms and open up whole new worlds of opportunity. With these new visions it is easier for people to let go of existing realities and naturally a whole new language will take shape.  

There is one word, however, that does seem to have a place in business - and that is the Heart. We ofter hear expressions such as: follow your heart, the heart of a project, team or organization, winning the hearts of consumers...However, I feel we have lost touch with the true meaning behind these expressions. Therefore, I believe there's an opportunity to explore in more depth what they mean and in doing so create more awareness of the benefits of the heart and openess to close the gap between what we say and how we behave. 


peter-russell's picture
Here is an extract from a recent blog post I wrote in an attempt to offer an answer to Gary's questions.
Of course corporations don’t think – they are as inanimate as a table or chair. But, corporations are staffed, managed and led by people who do think. So it is to people, and especially those who lead them, that we have to look to inject values. Did something go wrong, or is human nature the cause of the lack of workplace “soul”?
Barbarians at the gate?  Today in the corporate world there is something of a struggle taking place between realist and liberal ideals – i.e. the need to produce profit vs. the desire to be loved and lauded for noblesse of purpose. The realist observation that “the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must” was made 2500 years ago in Thucyidides account of the History of the Peloponnesian War. The observation was attributed to the Athenians as part of their justification for conquest and slavery; the Athenians later lost the war, their empire, and saw the start of the decline and fall of their civilisation – the strong became the weak as so often happens. Up until now many of the powerful in corporations have taken a not dissimilar view to that of the Athenians – some would argue rightly.
Lately there has been more debate about what role business should play in society. Governments threaten to legislate, and industry bodies and regulators are issuing dictats. But, it is perhaps institutional investors who hold the key – they are increasingly taking far more interest in issues around the long-term sustainability of their corporate investments; the carbon footprint of corporations, the public image they project, the manner and degree of responsibility of the leaders of those organisations, the way in which they treat their people, and the level of rewards they pay their leadership. After the bad press they’ve had the past few years it would be an ironic twist if banks, insurance companies, and pensions and investment organisations become the instrument of change that puts some sort of “soul” into the world of business.
In short, I think the problem is leadership and human nature, and that therein also lies the answer. Third parties such as investors, regulators etc, won't solve the problem, but they can put pressure on boardrooms to drive top-down change.  Like Greg I favour evolution rather than revolution.
keith-york's picture
Yes - it would be wonderful if all companies re-invented themselves.  In fact, I work for a company that should re-reinvent itself.  It was once known as a company driven by the noble values listed above, but leadership chyanges and business pressures have pushed it the other way.  I daresay, though, that true 'heart and soul' engagement doesnt' come just from the company.  It comes, also, from the individual.  I know we all know someone who is driven by the very values we espouse, and who affects those that work with them every day, regardless of what company they're in. 

So, to 'ditto' Greg's comment above, Start now.  Change what you can.  Bring those values into your day to day interactions and change your language, even if the values aren't listed as 'corporate' values.  Yes there's risk.  Managers might not like it, co-workers might laugh.  The alternative, however, is a job with no heart and soul.  Not sure which is worse.

greg-stevenson's picture

With all due respect Keith, I believe you are effectively advocating "a call to arms type approach" which I think will have limited effect. It is not what I promote. Such an approach will get a lot of good people fired, a few isolated as the company eccentrics, and a few,  promoted to a point where their risk of being fired stops them exposing the truth . The fall out will be, more often than not, mediocrity and disgruntlement of the work force.

"Be courageous, expose your values". This is the realm of corporate organised new age personal development programs. You will open yourself up to the inevitable charges of hypocrisy as even heroes struggle to live up to their own ideals. Discretion may be the better side of valour when it comes to protecting your income.

Admittedly such revolutionary tactics as standing up for your values in a corporate environment may work dependent on the company but because of debt and the reputation you carry with you it also is fraught with great personal risk.

There is a better way. Companies will need to encourage you to walk before you can run. This can be done with a small but profound tweak to the existing system.

greg-stevenson's picture

I believe the language, particularly of love, is notably absent from the corporate realm is due to conflict in values generated by the system.
To overcome the guilt individuals feel from conflicting values they tend to compartmentalize their lives. Church, charity, and social service clubs are for moralising. Work is for something else. The beauty of the corporate environment is that everyone else has compartmentalized their lives in the same way and the effect is to give relief from that guilt enough to be able to ignore it. There is no such thing as "Personal Ethics" and "Business Ethics" there is only the actions taken in relation to the values you hold.
Too much language relating to love (I believe the other words stem from Love and synonymously, Truth) within your work environment forces you to introspect and will eventually cause you to question your own actions in relation to the "Golden Rule". The guilt you came to work to avoid becomes unbearable.
This in turn conflicts with some low levels of the hierarchy of needs. You don't work; you can't pay the rent, or even more motivating, the mortgage. Your fear of losing shelter outweighs your desire to treat others as you would like them to treat you, and to speak up when you see those values being disregarded by the organisation you work for. Slavery in the form of Debt is all pervasive.

If the above is a problem, and that may not be clear to some. This means the prevailing absence of the language of love within the corporate realm is actually the symptom. So what is the solution?

It is clear that something must change. I favour evolution rather than revolution as sudden change hurts, and more often than not; will kill. There are over three hundred dead in Egypt because a dictator couldn’t evolve his political system over thirty years toward the will of his people.

So what we need is a tweak to the system that allows individuals to regularly to take action that allows them to practice following their individual values within the work environment. In essence, this tweak creates an outlet within the organisation to produce the symptoms of Love.  This tweak to the system needs to pragmatic, integrated, safe, voluntary and scalable. This should be regular but random. The implementation of the system I have in mind would not only result in a predominance of win-win outcomes from corporate activity but the language of love within the corporate realm would be a consequence of its existence.

kutlu-kazanci's picture

This post reminded me of a comment, I think by Drucker, that money is like oxygen for corporations.  You cannot live without it but noone lives just to breathe.

I think the industrial age became the dominant metaphor in our ways of thinking, especially in the business world and the business world became focused on metrics, processes to the degree of neglecting personel and intra-personal qualities, which are in a sence harder to develop because they are more of an art rather than a science.

Anthony Robbins talks about the science of achievement and art of fulfillment.  I think our organizations focus on the science but miss the art but try to make up for it by pushing on the science gas pedal.

I think the same phenomenon happens on the national scale.  We look at GDP growth as the main success indicator for countries.  However, we live in a world with limited resources and we cannot target and sustain maximum GDP growth.  I am really happy to see experiments with new national welface indecis that take into account other factors and I think the same is and need to happen more at organizational levels.

I think more people feel this way and agree with these statements; however, the status qua still prevails.  Why? Because most of us have bought into these mental models and have a hard time imagining otherwise – what’s needed, successful role models, stories, prototypes and I think the MIX is a great platform for this.

I think we will not be able to (and should not) try to replicate the developed world middle-upper class consumerist life style for the world.  I doubt 6+ billion people can find full employment and turn into full consumers.  We will need to revert to less work, more leisure, more self and group auto-entertainment, is my projection.  I welcome more of such at corporates as well.


_140's picture
The kind of language we need is missing because we model the norm, often a departure from our natural selves. Organizations disapprove of public displays of affection, even verbal PDAs, so we self-censor to not only exhibit appropriate behavior, but language stripped of emotion.

Your blog reminded me of my first meeting with Ken Dychtwald (Age Wave), who was interviewing me for the CIO role in a startup. His feedback was that I used the word 'love' several times in referring to several colleagues and a few organizations, and that it wasn't his experience that CIO candidates mentioned loving anybody. I hadn't noticed until Ken made it distinct for me. [BTW: got the job, did some of the best work of my career, driven to create something big that didn't yet exist.]

To create the kind of environment where people can connect on a deeper level, leaders have to model the new way, starting with a mission that appeals to your emotions... that makes you want to get out of bed every morning... and reinforced in daily interactions among people that blend a discipline for the science and a passion for the art.