Maintaining Minority Beliefs in an Indifferent Workplace
by Deborah Clark Vance2003
Although how religious belief informs behavior is increasingly being examined in public discourse, it is still often neglected as a contributing factor in organizational communication. Religious belief lies beneath the thought processes of individuals as they make mundane decisions at work and elsewhere. Drawing on in-depth interviews, this paper examines how Bahá’ís of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, living in the mid-Atlantic region, attempt to integrate the teachings of their minority religion into USAmerican workplace cultures. It then compares the Bahá’ís’ perceptions with literature on those in the dominant USAmerican culture.
After Al Qaida extremists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, discussions abounded in the media about how religious beliefs can lead individuals to behave in seemingly unpredictable ways. As individuals make even mundane decisions of daily life, religious and spiritual beliefs often lie beneath their thought processes. If the beliefs of others were known, then perhaps their behaviors could be understood within a context and the motives attributed to the behavior would more likely be accurate.
Although there has been increasing interest in the function of religious and spiritual belief in the workplace (Bartunek & Moch, 1994; Biberman & Whitty, 1997; Guilar, 1997; Grimes, et al., 1999; Louis, 1994; Sass, 2000; Witmer, 1997) underlying cognitions are still largely overlooked as contributing factors in organizational communication. They should be studied, however, because spiritual thoughts and the behaviors emerging from them are most likely not confined to a specific place in one’s life but are carried into the organization. Individuals must negotiate their multiple roles, in and out of work, to create a unified identity (Roberts, 1999). For example, tacit beliefs may be drawn upon when one makes moral interpersonal choices and ethical business decisions.
Religion and spirituality are often seen as two separate areas, the former viewed as organized social practices and sets of beliefs and the latter as an individual’s private, inner relationship with the nonphysical world (Roof, 1998).. This paper recognizes that spirituality often derives from religion, and that both comprise beliefs.
One problem with researching spirituality is arriving at a definition that can be recognized across the literature. In a metastudy of spirituality in organizational communication literature, Sass (2000) located academic studies on spirituality to focus on how managers’ spirituality affects employees. He identifies connectedness, comprised of emotions and creativity, as a key concept in the literature and pinpoints three characteristics of spirituality that may manifest themselves in organizational settings – one’s feelings, value alignment, and interpersonal behavior.
In response to questions into what aspect of spirituality was most important at the workplace, Mitroff & Denton (1999) found the most frequent reply was reaching one’s full potential. Respondents in their study also expressed the need to belong to a “good organization” and to do work that is some form of service, whether to fellow employees or to the community at large. Indeed, most of their respondents report feeling a “wounding of the soul” from working in organizations generally (p. 88). The same respondents say that although philosophical values belong at work, spirituality does not. Most wish they could express spirituality but because they do not want to offend others, they rarely pray at work. Personal attributes described as comprising spirituality are integrity, honesty, good relationships, keeping one’s word, trustworthiness, and being in touch with the universe (Mitroff & Denton, 1999). Guilar (1999) would add “taking a stand,” to the list. Because spirituality comprises such an intimate part of individuals’ identities, most people do not separate their beliefs form their sense of self. Indeed, oftentimes beliefs are knit so closely with an individual’s identity as to lie unconscious until a crisis arises and the individual is impelled to think about her communication more than usual (Roberts, 1999).
In all of these studies, the specific religious affiliation is not identified, however it can be surmised that most if not all the respondents are Christian or Christian-inspired. The United States has been peopled mostly by Christians throughout its history, with the percentage of Christians now in the United States, according to the 2001 census, at about 75 percent. Those ascribing to “no religion” comprise 14 percent and non-Christians are between 3 to 4 percent of the population. (Kosmin et al., 2001). My assumption is that the literature of the USAmerican workplace is predominantly Christian or reactive against a Christian or Jewish upbringing and that the normative values and beliefs of individuals in those studies were of a primarily Christian orientation. I sought to explore whether those who profess a minority religion such as the Bahá’í Faith, come to the workplace with a set of values noticeably different from the ones represented in the literature. Those self-identifying as Bahá’ís is 84,000 (Kosmin et al., 2001).
In order to compare a group with the predominantly Christian respondents of the literature, I performed a snowball sample to locate 14 members of the Bahá’í Faith in the mid-Atlantic region whom I interviewed. I sought to include as wide a variety as possible of ages and ethnic backgrounds. The focus of the interviews was on how individuals attempt to integrate the teachings of their minority religion into USAmerican workplace cultures that may not be aligned with their beliefs.
After transcribing the interviews, I used a constant comparison method, grouping and regrouping the most salient statements into categories. I then used Sass’s three common areas that may manifest themselves in organizational settings – feelings, value alignment and interpersonal behaviors – as a framework for comparing categories deriving from the Bahá’ís’ responses with the categories found by Sass.
Data from the Interviews
The respondents spoke of their efforts to integrate spiritual beliefs with their behavior. The pertinent behaviors most often mentioned referred to Bahá’í teachings on the establishment of the oneness of humankind and the performing of work as acts of worship. While these teachings themselves may not be unique to the Bahá’ís, the respondents perceive that their focus on these elements differs from the beliefs of others in their work environments. Indeed, some of the respondents feel separated or alone in these beliefs in the workplace.
Respondents say their belief in the oneness of humankind helps them place the “not so ideal conditions” of office politics into perspective. Judy tries to “promote unity” at work and to encourage others to get along. Margie gives people a lot of latitude because she realizes they do not necessarily have the same standards. Tom seeks to take the other person’s perspective. He and Jim say they counter racist remarks and point out unacceptable behavior.
Concomitant with the notion of oneness is that of consultation as an approach to problem solving, meaning that all voices must be heard in an attempt to be problem-focused rather than political. Respondents say they feel responsible to help others examine things from a different perspective, to include all voices in a discussion, and to encourage others to contribute ideas but to be detached from them. Yet they feel that others in their work organization do not approach consultation in the way they understand it.
Further, because of the emphasis on oneness, the Bahá’í writings particularly sanction backbiting. An area mentioned as one where Bahá’ís feel they stand outside of USAmerican culture is participation in gossip. Backbiting is specifically mentioned in Bahá’í Writing as something to be avoided because it hinders group unity. Respondents consistently mention that they deal with office gossip by announcing they will not backbite and walk away from the situation, or by “just try[ing] not to participate.” Similar to this is taking part in partisan politics. Respondents attempt to avoid discussing political candidates.
Work as Worship
The respondents imbue the work experience with a deep layer of meaning, based on the belief found in the Bahá’í teachings that work done in the spirit of service equates with worshipping God. In other words, work performed in the right frame of mind can embody a sense of sacredness. This belief allows respondents “to keep work in perspective.” Seeing work in this larger light ascribes a meaning to the act of working that gives it an almost meditative quality. It also may prevents respondents from defining themselves by their job or position.
The perspective placed on the meaning of work helps respondents to emotionally detach themselves from office politics, and even promotion interviews. Indeed, some office procedures, such as those having to do with promotions and awards, present a particular challenge for the respondents. As Kathy says about an awards system,
The whole system irks me to death because there’s no campaigning in the Bahá’í Faith…I’m not working for the award or bonus but those things look good on your resume…It’s not done fairly, it almost makes me cringe because it’s a ridiculous thing…I do benefit from it because I do receive awards, but I don’t participate in the system.
Further, Margie relates how her seeming lack of enthusiasm caused a department chair to doubt her desire for the position. She thinks the chair expected her to behave or speak falsely in order to get the promotion, which she was unwilling to do and that as a result, she was passed over for selection on a regional committee. Equating work with worship is akin to calling it a form of prayer. Seen it this light, it would not be something to compete over or brag about.
Work as worship contains within it the responsibility to serve the community and to participate “in institutions and agencies that are designed to transform society,” as one respondent said. The notion of responsibility to serve causes several respondents to sometimes go out of their way to help others, though such behavior may not be especially productive. For example, as a lawyer specializing in real estate, Eileen, when working for a bank, extended deadlines to individuals whom she thought were honestly struggling to pay. Margie wants to be seen as a woman who’s fair with the other side. Neither of these approaches to their work can be seen as competitive or self promoting.
As with the reference group, the Bahá’ís acknowledge that honesty and trustworthiness play an important role in their belief system. Jim says he is careful not to take anything from work that does not belong to him. Sam says,
When you live your life to be a successful spirit…you’re not going to have a reason to lie or manipulate…or hide something because… your long range goal is to be more spiritual.
The USAmerican workplace reflects USAmerican life: It usually includes a hierarchy where superiors have the power to reward subordinates who compete for gain recognition and limited material rewards. Workers promote themselves in order to gain recognition for their accomplishments. These characteristics of power, material reward and self promotion are not commonly thought to be conducive to spirituality. As respondents in Mitroff and Denton’s (1999) study say, the tenor of the workplace is not conducive to spirituality, although most employers would welcome firm ethics from their employees.
Using Sass’s three areas of spirituality– feelings, value alignment and interpersonal behavior – I compared the studies done among primarily Christian workers (“reference group”) and the Bahá’ís. First, the reference group defines spirituality as being in touch with the universe, and as connectedness with one’s creativity and emotions. The Bahá’ís define it as detachment from the material world. This indicates a difference in focus – being in touch with the universe connotes a reaching up and beyond oneself, and the connectedness with creativity and emotions is a reaching inward. Detachment from the material world indicates more of a letting go of than a reaching toward. Being in touch suggests a soul that makes contact with the body and with that which is outside the body, whereas detaching from the material world suggests a soul that pushes away from the world, perhaps seeing the body at more of a distance. The difference is fundamental, however subtle it may seem.
Under the value alignment category, the reference group respondents express the importance of belonging to a good organization and that organizations can wound the soul. They feel the need to serve their fellow employees, the community, and future generations, and hope to reach their full potential at work.
Because they perceive work as worship, the Bahá’ís do not make a connection between work and reaching their individual potential; the organization thus does not have the power to wound their soul. Because they feel a responsibility to serve, they prefer to belong to institutions that transform society, or at least seek work that serves society. Some report that they tried helping people, though it was not necessary in their particular jobs, until they realized that it was not appropriate.
In the interpersonal behavior category, the reference group says that spirituality comprises getting along with others, keeping their word, being honest and trustworthy, having integrity, and taking a stand. On the other hand, the Bahá’ís, because of their perspective on oneness, see spirituality as encouraging others to get along, not backbiting, helping others to see things from another perspective, and seeing that everyone’s voice is heard. The contrast here is between the reference group’s taking a stand and the Bahá’ís making sure that all voices are heard, something that may not occur if one takes a stand on an issue.
The Reference Group
Being in touch w/universe
Connectedness w/creativity & emotions
Belong to good organization
Org. can wound the soul
Want to serve employees, humanity
Want to reach full potential
Get along with others
Take a stand [consistent w/beliefs]
Detachment from material world
Institutions that transform society
Responsibility to service
Work as worship
Keep work in perspective
Oneness of mankind
Encourage others to get along
Be fair with both sides
Help others see things from diff. perspective
Everyone has a voice and should be heard
Individuals carry their beliefs with them, and usually do not understand the extent to which others’ behavior is rooted in deeply held beliefs. For the reference group, work is the arena that can determine how they express their spirituality. When it stifles them, it has the power to wound the soul. The Bahá’ís focus less on the specific organizations and more on their attitude toward the act of work. Interpersonally, this group has a more outward focus. The Bahá’ís approach such daily work behaviors as promotion reviews, office gossip, and basic attitude toward work from a more detached position.
Beliefs create a platform for how we approach the world. The difference in perspectives arising from difference in belief systems can lead to miscommunication, as here where Bahá’ís even give a different meaning to work itself.
As diversity in the workplace continues to increase, the USAmerican culture needs to develop more sensitivity to different perspectives so as to understand how such perspectives inform behavior differently.
In USAmerican culture, religion and politics are still areas where many refuse to tread for fear of stirring up conflict. Perhaps other communication models exist that would provide a healthy example to USAmericans for how to discuss difficult topics without allowing emotional reaction to interfere with listening to each other. The vast array of possible beliefs that exist, and how those beliefs inform individual behavior, has yet to be explored. This study is a first step in such a conversation.
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