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How do small business leaders reflect their spirituality at work?

Date Published: April 17, 2019

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Im not an entrepreneur who happens to be spiritual; Im a spiritual Indian who happens to be an entrepreneur. . .

- Aboriginal business owner

These quotes open an article on small businesses and spirituality published recently by Sobey Management professor Cathy Driscoll and two co-authors. The first quote is from a philosopher whose writings have influenced the spirituality and work literature; the second is a quote from a participant in Driscoll’s study.

The documented stories can be moving, like the baker describing the only customer he had who cried, a little girl with multiple allergies who was finally able to share a birthday cake with her friends, as a “blessing God brought me.” The participants testify as to how they reflect their spirituality in place, like the communications company leader whose clients remark on how her work differs in the way she creates community-gathering places, which she attributes to her faith. The bookstore owner feels that books represent the richness of human experience, and it is through his display design that he creates a spiritual space.

When it comes to putting their beliefs into ethical practice, the business owners variously note they demand integrity in their products and staff; they invest in serving their customers rather than cutting corners to make more money; and they honour their competitors as other “people loved by God.”

One of the service company leaders is quoted, “I feel that spiritual values actually elevate the work environment because it stresses the importance of showing respect to others. It touches on the facets of honesty and the way you are fulfilling your responsibilities within, not only within the office, but also in dealing with clients. . .”

Driscoll and her fellow authors held in-depth interviews with 20 participants identified as Aboriginal, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and New Age. Their work encompassed engineering, communications, bakery and restaurant, retailing, consulting, different types of service companies, and recreation.

The research was exploratory, so while the results cannot be applied to all small businesses, the findings shine a light on how companies in a range of industries bring their spirituality to bear on their working lives. And that is an important finding  itself – the company owners and leaders who were interviewed use their business to achieve spirituality objectives, rather than using spirituality to achieve business ends.

In other words, although some are explicit about their beliefs, these companies are not “faith-washing”.

The academic literature and media have tended to focus on larger companies in past reporting on spirit and religion at work, and these companies have often been explicit, prescriptive, and even instrumental in approach. Driscoll and her co-authors recognized an opportunity to explore small businesses that translate their spirituality into authentic ethical actions and socially responsible outcomes.

The resulting article, authored by Driscoll, Elizabeth McIsaac and Elden Wiebe, called “The material nature of spirituality in the small business workplace: from transcendent ethical values to immanent ethical actions,” was published in the Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion in January, 2019. This research was partly supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Sobey School and Saint Mary’s University have actively contributed to the idea of spirituality in the workplace for years. For a time, the school hosted the Centre for Spirituality in the Workplace, and currently offers the Harry and Lily Rutte Award for Spirituality and the Workplace annually in an open student competition.

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