Bring your soul to work

Stone spiralThe malaise of work is a spiritual crisis.

Not spiritual in the religious sense. But spiritual in our yearning to have more joy, kindness, respect and compassion at work. Spiritual in our desire to grow our capacity to learn, help, care, imagine, forgive, and support others – and they us -- when we push ourselves into the scary territory of doing new types of work. Spiritual in that we want to be devoted to our work, but not slaves to it.

To single handedly change corporate cultures is almost impossible. But perhaps what we can do is  bring our best selves to work, allowing our spiritual longings to run free, and in doing so, infect others.

By our best selves I mean doing work that matters to us. That we, for some reason, are truly good at. So good, in fact, you could say we become devoted to our work.

I don’t mean devoted to our company’s purpose. The reality is that most organizations don’t have an inspirational purpose that stirs our heart and soul. They’re about serving customers, making money, and hopefully, providing decent wages and an ethical work environment. You can search a whole lifetime to find an organization with a “meaningful purpose” and come up empty. Or you can find one with an inspiring purpose and walk into a cold, cynical culture.

 Rather than focus on company purpose, perhaps we should focus on personal devotion. By devotion I mean what you care about find great satisfaction in being able to do well.

A friend who works for a global transportation company felt trapped in a job that left him spiritually bereft.

“I just don’t feel like this company is changing the world in any meaningful way. I need more purpose at work. Some days I wish I could just paint more,” he said.

“You're an artist!” I asked. Who knew.

Over dinner he told me how creativity is so important to him, and then we started exploring how he could bring more creativity to his work inside a big company. How he might be able to devote himself to developing creative product and service solutions. How maybe he could devote himself to creativity at work, period.

He’s now head of innovation and happier and more energized than I’ve seen him in the past 10 years. His spirit is infectious, too.

This is the wonderful thing about being devoted to your work. Your human spiritual workings – kindness, caring, compassion – grow and affect others at work, as well as your family and friends.

The frame of your devotion can also help you envision where to take your work, reaching beyond companies, functions and specialties.

What are you devoted to?

I’ve always been devoted to helping people, causes and companies be understood. This has taken me from working in marketing positions, advising industry leaders, serving on non-profit boards, coaching sales executives on big pitches, and volunteering on community issues. The devotion is the same. The application is different. The meaning is always there.

One of my brothers owns a sand and gravel company. For years I thought he was devoted to making big buckets of money. But I have come to appreciate how devoted he is to helping his largely uneducated, immigrant employees live the American dream. He works so much because his work is a spiritual -- though he would never probably be comfortable in talking about it in this way.

With the publication of the new book a co-authored with Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, many people have asked me why I got involved in this topic. Rebels? Really?

Helping people in big organizations have their often-provocative ideas be understood fits my devotion.

Spiritual prophets at work?

The other reason is that people devoted enough to speak up for important and unpopular ideas may be the spiritual prophets at our workplaces. They bring courage, creativity, commitment and a belief that there’s always a way to improve work, making things better for people..

It’s hard to change the world or even our companies. But maybe, just maybe we can make work more spiritual by bringing our best selves to our work and positively affecting others.

The Latin meaning of devotion is vow.

What might happen if more of us vowed to do work that brings us alive?