by David Weitzner, Ph.D. author of “Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work“
For the past year, many of us have spent a lot of time working alone from home. To bring meaning to this work, we’ve been looking inward, breathing and waiting for the pandemic to pass. Mindfulness has been a great tool for these periods of relative isolation and helplessness in that it helps support wellbeing and alleviates stress.
But as we turn our eyes to the post-pandemic recovery, most organizations will need to support a different path to meaning in workspaces. The inward, passive, non-judgmental approach of mindfulness that so many have adopted – which focuses on developing the ability to be present without judgment or reaction – will likely prove insufficient for our rebuilding needs.
Mindfulness is a spiritual system honed by those who idealized a monastic life. It tells us to “be patient and let things be” as a meaningful antidote to the sometimes overwhelming chaos of everyday work. But making effective decisions in the fast-paced and always-changing task of recovery will require a mindset at peace with being somewhat impatient and proactive.
To rebuild post-pandemic, organizations will need people that can react and enact the world they desire. Embracing this strategy requires something of a paradigm shift for those of us who have gone all-in on mindfulness — one that incorporates the currently unpopular idea that spirituality is so much more than a state of inward bliss.
In seeking meaning at work, we need to hone the ability to react, especially in extraordinarily disruptive competitive environments. Instead of being passively non-judgmental, we must find ways to inspire the entire constellation of stakeholders who can contribute to or hinder our workplace success.
Reaction becomes spiritual when we invite new and old stakeholders into co-creative partnerships. At work, like in our personal lives, connecting with other people is spiritually significant. All the more so, in fact, because at work we must connect and engage with others to co-create. To succeed at this will mean embracing a paradigm of being spiritually reactive. I talk more about this concept in my new book, “Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work“.
What does a “reactive spirituality” mean in the context of building a resilient recovery-ready workplace culture?
Seek Meaning, But Also Connection and Wonder
First, if a secular work culture is to be “spiritual,” it must be devoted to the pursuit not only of meaning, but also of connection and wonder. The highest form of curiosity is awe and wonder. The spiritual experience starts with meaning, leads to connection and peaks with wonder, leading to a potentially endless cycle of growth.
For work to inspire meaning, it needs to be an active, not passive, exercise. Furthermore, if there is to be connection, work activities must encourage the development of new relationships. And if there is to be wonder, then work activities must inspire change in team members, leaders and all those around them.
While writing “Connected Capitalism“, I talked with a Google employee who gave this story: His team had a meeting with a client a year into their project engagement to check in and see how far they had come in building a product’s requested features after a year of work. The product manager described what the team had done. The client responded “OK. But what about all of these things I asked you to do?” The product manager admitted they forgot to work on those things, then said, “But let me show you this …” And the client saw what the team had done and exclaimed, “That’s amazing! Wow!”
Not all companies can be Google and operate that way, but that is the power of wonder, and the connections it can build. “Wow!” is, at times, an expression of wonder. Silence, at times, is an expression of wonder. It is an indicator that our mental frames have been broken by the new content we are trying to insert. Wonder is a force that transforms.
Stop Managing People and Processes, Start Enabling Cooperative Partnerships
Second, a reactive spiritual work culture means that leaders need to move away from the idea of work as the act of managing people and processes, and instead see work as finding, enabling, building and maintaining cooperative partnerships between team members dedicated to value creation. Like in the example above. The team leader could have “managed” the team and the process to make sure they adhered to the narrow project parameters laid out by the client. And sometimes that’s necessary to keep things from going off the rails. Or the client could have “managed” the consultants to adhere to the original vision. But wonder-ful things happen when we don’t.
Get Comfortable With Uncertainty, Trade-Offs and Risk
Third, a spiritually reactive work culture will demand that we be motivated, curious, and agile, while comfortable with uncertainty, trade-offs, and risk. We need to be curious enough to want to take risks, to make trade-offs, to react despite the reality of great uncertainty. Meaning in a recovery environment needs to be constructed through being active, not passive. We will need to make judgements in order to discern meaning. We will need to judge with frequency and sometimes with haste when we are in recovery mode, not despite the uncertainty but precisely because of uncertainty.
As I argue in “Connected Capitalism“, especially in the post-COVID world, effective workspaces will need to find ways to make all stakeholders feel like empowered partners in value creating activities. I predict that businesses who swap mindfulness for ancient spiritual traditions rooted in a reactive wisdom, ones that view the sacred and meaningful as best expressed in our actions and interactions with the everyday, will thrive in the post-pandemic era.
David Weitzner is an assistant professor of management at York University. He is author of “Connected Capitalism: How Jewish Wisdom Can Transform Work“.