The company we keep matters deeply to us. It frames how we learn and grow, our happiness and even the meaning we get out of life. It also happens to deeply impact our work.
For organizations that understand this deeper nature of work, “two plus two” doesn’t just equal four. These entities create a synergy between and within people that helps them bring more of themselves to work each day. As a result, these organizations operate quite differently from ordinary organizations.
How do you know you’re dealing with such an organization? Well, mostly, you just feel it.
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plan will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. – Joseph Campbell
Feeling the Culture
I’ve built places like that. In fact, I’ve done it twice; once in the belly of big, old Microsoft and once at a small, mission-driven technology consultancy called Groundwire. I mention this only because it’s important to know that I’m writing here from firsthand experience about something very real, and very effective when it comes to getting work done.
These organizations weren’t perfect, but they were very good at what they did. More than that though, they had something that many others don’t: they had soul.
Soul means lots of things to lots of people, but when you walk into an organization that has it, you do feel something different.
When I speak of soul, I’m not talking about soft lights, choir music, the pristine, or the perfect. For me, it’s the lack of perfection that adds to a sense of soulfulness – just like the little quirks we see in others add to their humanity.
Having soul should never be an excuse for poor performance. The soulful organizations I ran had little tolerance for ineffective behavior among our people. That said, there is a certain amount of messiness in these entities – the kind of messiness you’d expect when dealing with human nature, and human relationships.
Our Relationships with Soul
Relationships, it turns out, are a critical part of a soulful organization.
Relationships are more about effectiveness than efficiency. Cogs are efficient and interchangeable; if one’s not working right, just swap it out. But we’ve fooled ourselves for too long, believing that people are interchangeable cogs.
If you want a lot out of a relationship, you invest in it. We know this on a deep, intuitive level through our experience with family and friends. But somewhere along the way we seem to have carved out our places of businesses as the one place where this deep truth about human nature does not apply. When we hear “It’s nothing personal – just business,” we need to ask ourselves if that’s what we really want in our places of work.
I think not.
A Soulful Mission
Aside from encouraging deep relationships, soulful organizations also tend to stand for something. They’re a magnet for individuals who long to be part of something bigger than themselves: a compelling mission that’s more that just a document, but a palpable shared passion with the other people who work there.
That mission can be grand and noble, but it doesn’t have to be. We humans are born meaning-makers. Give us a goal and most of us will knock ourselves silly trying to achieve it – especially if it inspires us and we see it exciting others.
In 2011, I gave a TEDx talk on “the soulful company,” and I wasn’t terribly happy with the way it turned out. Talking about companies in the same breath as the soul is tricky terrain. The thought of a company trumpeting its soulfulness is beyond a huge turn-off. The soul is intensely personal, and for some, downright sacred.
Not everyone actually believes in the soul. And of those who do, many associate it with organized religion, which they feel quite strongly about keeping out of our places of work.
My purpose here is not to refute those concerns, especially since I share many of them myself.
And still, I find myself coming back to this idea – even now, on the two-year anniversary of that TEDx talk. Why? Because I believe we are missing something important when we, as a society, carve the soul out from such an important aspect of modern life. For many of us, work is an essential aspect of who we are. When we lack the ability to contemplate this deeper aspect of ourselves, we lose something important.
To be clear, here’s what I am not saying:
- I’m not recommending we bring religion into the workplace. Nope. No thanks.
- I’m not arguing for soft lights, reverent tones or even sounds of running water in our workplaces. Soulful doesn’t have to mean wearing it on our sleeves.
- I’m not saying this is right for everyone or every organization. In fact, I suspect it’s right for very few.
What I am saying (and again, this is from my first-hand experience) is that working in a soulful organization is something that feels really good. Too good, in fact, to ignore it.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t fully know what a soulful organization is, but I plan to dig into it a bit more through my writings here on the Vital Edge. And yes, I realize I’m opening a huge can of worms in the process. Please be patient with me as I try to navigate this tricky terrain.