Leaders who aspire to create more “conscious” workplaces might well take a few lessons from Erich Fromm’s classic 1959 book, The Art of Loving. In a recent blog posting, Maria Popova (www.brainpickings.org), the brilliant and prolific curator of all things fascinating, recalled that Fromm saw love as an art like any other, “say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering.” The art of love, like these others, he said, “must be learned.” Mastering the art of loving, he wrote, ”can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice.” Surely, the same might be said for the “art of becoming,” or our capacity for expressing our best selves as fully conscious and aware human beings in our lives and in our workplaces.
Mastering the theory and practice of becoming more fully human in the workplace is the subject of our 2015 book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace. The book uses a simple theoretical framework for the art of becoming, describing the process as a movement from Selfness to Otherness to Wholeness. It highlights practices or ways of being in the world that move us along the pathway to wholeness including meeting basic needs, challenging assumptions, acting autonomously, engaging in meaningful work, appreciating beauty, manifesting intention, embodying compassion, giving back and being peace.
For leaders, applying adult development theory and sponsoring practices for elevating consciousness in the workplace, however, are the relatively easy parts of creating conditions for mastering the art of becoming. As Fromm reflected on the art of loving, he added what he called “a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art – the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art.” And therein, according to Fromm, lies the crux of why we fail so miserably in mastering the art of loving. In spite of “the deep-seated craving for love,” he writes, “almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.”
Again, the parallels to mastering the art of becoming are striking. Creating the conditions in which all people can become more fully themselves takes a level of commitment not present in most organizations today where “success, prestige, money, power” are still the primary sought after ends. In the research for our book, however, we interviewed dozens of leaders who have a grasp of the theory, foster practices conducive to transformation, and make growing their people a priority as robust as profitability. We found that these leaders and their transformative workplaces exist all over the world in every imaginable industry and in all shapes and sizes from the smallest nonprofits to huge global conglomerates.
One case in point is Oleana, a small company in Norway that makes what may be the most stunningly beautiful knitwear in the world. Co-founders of the company, Signe Aarhus and Kolbjorn Valestrand, left management positions in Norway’s largest textile mill to start Oleana when they could no longer “agree with a great deal of what they were doing, their strategy, and how they treated people.” As Kolbjorn told us, starting a new venture at the time was risky, at best.
“People said it wasn’t possible to have a textile industry in Norway. There was also a finance crisis in 1991, so the banks were almost bankrupt, and it was difficult to get a loan to start the business. Unemployment was also at the highest level since the last world war. We decided to start an ‘ideal project,’ to create jobs, and to show that it was possible to run a textile business in Norway. We thought there was a market for good design, and that there would always be a market for good products. We said our main goal was not to be as rich as possible, but to make a beautiful product and to be nice with people.
I have been through many theories about human behavior, and we think it is not so complicated as many people think it is. We look at people as people. And we think the people want to work. Some others think that people have to be controlled all the time, that you have to make control structures because they don’t want to work. We say we don’t build up structures, we build up people. We are working for a common goal.”
The couple’s management and leadership practices are consistent with their theory about growing people. In addition to an extremely generous profit-sharing program, the company sponsors an annual trip for the entire workforce to visit the sources of their materials, as well as the inspiration for their designs. Their ventures have included a trip to the Italian Alps to visit mills where their yarns are spun; a visit to a major source of their buttons in Vienna; and, a trip to Istanbul to visit sites that offer inspiration to the company’s lead designer. “It is so interesting,” Signe told us, “for people who have this yarn through their hands every day at work. So now they have a picture in their heads of where it is spun, what was important, what did they learn there. It is a way to try to widen their perspective, because it is lots of tedious work in this industry. But we believe if you have a bigger rainbow over the whole thing, it is more interesting, and you understand more.”
The rewards are great for Oleana and other companies that embrace this level of commitment to the growth and development of their people. Our research provides evidence that fostering more conscious ways of being at work pays off in employees who are more loyal, hard-working, productive and engaged. They are more positive, mindful, self-aware, inspired, creative, confident and able to work collaboratively across difference. They save their organizations billions of dollars in healthcare and lost time costs due to illness, depression, anxiety and other stress-related costs. They help to make their organizations more profitable and they contribute to their communities and the larger society.
The premise of The Transformative Workplace is that the only way to address the complex global issues we are confronting in the world today is to shift our levels of human consciousness, and that workplaces must become contexts for growing more fully aware participants in the evolution of life on our planet. A commitment to expanding the consciousness of people, we say, enlarges the purpose of the organization, leads to its prosperity and, ultimately, creates greater possibilities of a more peaceful world for all. Thus, there is no more important leadership work to be done than to create the conditions for all people to be able to master the art of becoming. Our message to leaders: Check out the theory, actively engage in the practices, and do so as if your life – and the lives of others – depend on it. They do.
Read the Introduction to The Transformative Workplace and the chapter that features our Oleana interviews (or buy the book) at www.transformativeworkplace.com.
Read Matt Dockery’s review of the book at www.enliveningedge.org/reviews/the-transformative-workplace/.
Sign up for our March 8, 2016 Making Work that Transforms workshop at www.capitalquality.org/learning_lunch/ (scroll down for information and registration).