ometimes, the way forward is best inspired by looking backwards. This is the story about why two brothers started a church in their quest for corporate change.
Language is a funny thing. We tend to think of it as a tool which serves our need to communicate, but many philosophers and scientists have argued that the relationship between us and language is a reciprocal one. The words we use to describe the world shape the way we see the world as well. Ever ponder the differences in imagery between the words 'expat' and 'immigrant', for example? Words, metaphors and their underlying networks of associations are an expression of our thoughts while our thoughts themselves are an expression of them. And this holds true for the way we think about organizations as well.
Back around 1900 (AD), Charles Taylor invented modern management theory and we started to compare our organizations to machines. In serving these machines, efficiency was king, humans were degraded to mere resources and leadership was about exerting control. Even the word 'manager' stems from the Latin word manus, meaning hand, and the Italian word maneggiare. Literally: leading horses through the steps of the riding school, signifying a less-than-equal relationship between managers and their employees.
A hundred years later, the times have changed and a more conscious society is calling for social responsibility and corporate activism. In what has been described as 'an economy of meaning', consumers and professionals alike are looking for their 'why'. A new social contract between employees and their managers is ushering in an age of employee empowerment and facilitating management.
Meanwhile, corporates are struggling to reconcile their technocracies with the emotional appeal of -and the demand for- a higher purpose. Almost all have worded their 'core values' that drive them, hoping to increase trust in stakeholder relations, the market and win the war on talent. But how credible are they in claiming to serve a higher purpose instead of just profit?
Not very, as it turns out. While 90% of young professionals want do 'do something good' with their careers and centennials seem to value purpose as a main criterium for choosing a job, only 13% of employees feel engaged with the companies they work for. Our own research and statistical analysis of authenticity of core values shows that around 70% feels the company could and should do more to give meaning to the values which drive them. Which is a shame, since virtually all research in this area suggests that values and employee engagement lead to more profit, less absenteeism more innovation.
So where is the proverbial monkey wrench in the machinery?
The problem of corporate credibility with regards to values lies within the traditional style of management dating back to Taylor. Management today is still largely about command and control structures, and the metaphor of the machine competes with the quest for meaning. While purpose and values are strewn across annual reports, the day to day conversation at the workplace is still dominated by key performance indicators and evaluation cycles, not about meaning. Values are often considered nice-to-have, but in today's reality they usually yield to performance and growth.
If there's one thing we learned in our research into organizations and their values it's this: Taylorian leaders that feign a higher purpose to achieve results condemn their organization to a state of dichotomy which is bound to eventually disappoint their values-driven employees (and customers). In order to place purpose and values at the core of organizations, companies must abandon a context which places performance and profit above all. We must break Taylor's machine in search of a metaphor which is equipped to deal with matters of meaning.
And this is why we started a church.
Not to start a new religion, but to create a place of dialog outside of the daily routine in which concepts like values and purpose can be a goal in itself instead of an instrument for profit. And once again, it's language that provides a legitimate backdrop for the use of this old metaphor in exploring new avenues for change.
The word ‘church’ is derived from the ancient Greek word ecclesia. The original meaning was ‘a call to an assembly of the people’. Only later did the word become a domain of the Christian faith. The word ‘values’ in its current ethical meaning only came into use sometime during the 19th century as a way to talk about morality without having to resort to the bible and religious doctrine.
It is the history of meaning behind these words that inspires us to believe that a metaphor which deals with believing in something could serve as a perfect stage for a social conversation about values and a search for meaning without having to resort to religion. Especially in times of fake news and alternative facts, we propose to repurpose this concept for to its original meaning: a call to the assembly of the people to talk about what is good, without being concerned about who is right. As a driver of the conversation we need to have in order to make real change possible. And as starting point to transform our organizations to legitimize the values and purpose they already claim to have. Added benefit is that this opens the doors to more profitability as well.
To quote a dead president: we believe that a search for meaning gives wings to the better angels of human nature. We believe that every organization is a community which is driven by a shared belief about what is good and worthy of pursuit. And strengthening that community starts with asking the fundamental question: what do you believe in?
So where to go from here? The (traditional) church has all but left our lives, but our need for meaning is alive and kicking. Meanwhile, organizations are starting to believe that purpose and values drive profit, but are ill-equipped to embrace these concepts at the core of their context and engage their employees in a conversation about meaning. What would happen if we replace Taylor's machine with a corporate church when talking about our 'why'?
Would corporates become better at being values driven if they viewed their managers less as instruments of control and more as keepers of the faith? If they start thinking about what a celebration of their shared beliefs looks like or start sharing stories aimed at increasing a sense of community? And if you find yourself having trouble with overcoming the religious connotations of the word church, it may help to realize that companies have been inspired by the church for a long time; ever wonder about where the word mission, from 'mission statement' comes from?
Sander & Stephan Ummelen will be speaking at the Berlin Change Days 2018 about their corporate church and the need for change.
If your interested in hosting the corporate church in a quest for meaning or a talk about company values, feel free to contact them.
The church in action
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