(Scroll down for related podcast episode)
A couple of years ago, I attended a dinner meeting sponsored by a Christian business group. After dinner, we were asked to go around the room and talk about the issues we face in our work. One young manager spoke up and complained that he was having a difficult time balancing his desire for success with his attempt to live by the values taught by his church. This surprised me, so I spoke with him afterwards and challenged him a bit. He was insistent, however; he insisted that in his industry his desire to maintain his integrity was getting in the way of his ambitions.
I thought about this for a few days. As I did so, I realized that while I did not know his situation, in every business and industry in which I have worked, if you lost your reputation for honesty and fair dealing you were pretty much finished – finished at least until you had a chance to redeem yourself.
There is a false ideology at work in the world: the idea that integrity and the values and virtues promoted by the church and other religious entities are in fundamental conflict with business effectiveness and the success we hope results from effectiveness. This false ideology seems to underpin too much of what we hear from outside commentators when the topic of business comes up.
Success Is Usually Dependent On Collaboration
The truth is that in business and related vocations, success is usually heavily dependent on collaboration and on healthy collaborative relationships, in other words, on the building of community. And strong, collaborative relationships are in turn dependent on the same virtues taught by most religious traditions.
The values taught by churches, values like humility, compassion, honesty, transparency, equanimity, courage, and others, are important in their own right but they are also highly important in our work lives.
Nobody wants to do business with someone they cannot trust. It is very hard to form an effective working relationship if there is not at least some mutual concern for each other’s well-being. It is also very hard to work productively with someone who is narcissistic and has little or no sense of humility.
And an organization that treats its employees unfairly will have a hard time generating trust and voluntary cooperation.
There might seem to be exceptions. I think we can all point to someone who seems to be low on the integrity scale, or perhaps routinely mistreats coworkers and employees, but nevertheless seems to be getting ahead. But I believe these are truly exceptions. Mistreating others usually makes it harder, not easier, to meet one’s business objectives.
We should also acknowledge that we have all stumbled and fallen short of the bevavior required by our values. But these occasions almost always work against our long term success, not for it.
The Nature of Business
Much of the value of collaboration and collaborative relationships is derived from the nature of business itself.
To be clear, when I talk about business I am not talking about things like political cronyism or the attempt to tie up scarce resources in order to charge above market prices. When I talk about business, I mean the creative, productive process of producing value in the form of products and services that others want to buy. It is this creative, productive process that most calls for collaboration.
Properly understood, virtually any product or service we can find on the market has a huge network of activities behind it, all of which involve collaborative relationships. There is, of course, often an element of negotiation concerning prices, quality, delivery schedules, etc., and competition between alternative vendors is certainly a factor. But nevertheless, the network of productive activity is grounded primarily in collaboration and collaborative relationships. It is usually our working relationships that determine our success, not our willingness to compete.
As Michael Novak put it:
It is becoming clearer every day that one person’s work is naturally interrelated with the work of others. More than ever, work is work with others and work for others.
Novak also pointed out that business is a community building process; we build community as we work together towards mutual objectives.
And yet we frequently hear commentators complain from the sidelines about social atomization and the isolation of the individual that is allegedly brought about by modern business culture. Rather than understanding success as most often resulting from productive collaboration, this false ideology claims it is most often driven by obsessive greed, uncontrolled narcissism, and competitive ruthlessness. Sometimes commercially successful people reinforce this attitude, for example by talking about “giving back” as though their success has been built on “taking” rather than on producing and giving, or by repeating misleading cliches.
Most people who have been in business or related occupations for more than a couple of years have learned that without treating people properly it is difficult if not impossible to form the strong collaborative relationships that are usually necessary for success. And these strong, productive, collaborative relationships are grounded in the personal values we bring to our work.
 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, The Free Press (New York: 1996), pp. 125, 126.
This post is an updated version of an earlier post.
For the podcast episode on the same topic, listen here (Time: 9:08):
About the Faith and Enterprise Podcast
Each podcast episode deals with an aspect of Spiritual Renewal in Our Work Lives. Topics include finding purpose/work as a calling, spiritual practices that can help us in our work, dealing with workplace stress and other forms of workplace toxicity, spiritual aspects of leadership, and building a flourishing work life. We invite you to subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play, or listen on our website. You can also subscribe to email updates.