Last week we had the first Good Works event in a long time. It was as part of the 10 years after the crash series, which was a really apt time to introduce the wider world to a research project looking at spiritual capital. A lot of attention has been given to sustainability in the methods of production in the broader economic sphere, but still very little looks at ethical capitalism from the point of view of the people, even though there are clear issues with employee engagement that relate to that, and engaged employees improve productivity.
The word spiritual capital is likely to make many people wary, because we associate it to religion, but it’s not that reductive. We all have our values which we bring to the table, whether or not they come from a faith or they’re the kind of utilitarianism that follows logically from Dawkins’ materialistic atheism. Not one person in a workplace is exactly the same, not even in religious organisations where the faith is shared. I’ve worked for a Catholic charity where the majority of people are traditionalists for whom my politics if not my faith are too liberal. I also sit on a diocesan commission where the chair teased me that he doesn’t understand how a young Catholic could be a council candidate for the Tories. We all have deeply held beliefs that inform what we do and why we do it and how we feel about what we do when we miss the mark that we set ourselves as having a clean conscience.
You might remember me going to the Lake District on the first May Bank Holiday in 2016. It was for the pilot retreat of the series that will make the bulk of the research as part of the project Beliefs, Values and Worldviews at Work. A group of Catholics of various backgrounds, from academics to whistleblowers in the NHS to senior political advisors to well, me got together in the beautiful scenery and endeavoured to learn from the selection of speakers and each other while a sharp-mined academic observed the dynamics around her. It also had a pre-retreat and post-retreat interview as part of the research. The preliminary findings from this group will soon be published in an academic paper, but some of them were shared as part of the explanation of the project at the start of the event.
One of the academics on the project, professor Chris Baker of Goldsmith University and the William Temple Foundation, talked about the bigger picture around this. Why are we studying if and how people use their beliefs, worldviews and values at work? And why are we talking about it 10 years after the crash? His answer is that “The narrative around this event sees the crash as evidence of an economy that is disconnected”. We need to reconnect it to values. It’s been a big topic in Conservative circles in the past few months if not years. Theresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister was all about reforming the economy. One of the big subjects of the Big Tent Festival organised by George Freeman MP of Conservative Policy Forum fame is on the economy. A lot of the fringe events at Party Conference are, once again, on the subject. Everyone seems to disagree on the how we go about doing that. In fact, a poignant point that again Chris has made last week is that people think religion is part of the problem, and how we solve things is to just replace pluralism with the minimum common denominator, religion (and lack of thereof if applicable) is part of the solution.
The pilot retreat has brought to life a new vision of leadership that is not specifically Catholic but is intrinsically connected to the faith of each individual involved as far as they are concerned. It’s a leadership that is concerned with the other, humble, willing to listen and lead by example rather than through command. It is, for the Catholic, a way to put into practice their faith (a few of the fruits of the Holy Spirit are involved in this new vision), but it’s also pretty much what most people would think is being a decent human being, but somehow our vision of leadership seems to have kicked that out of the room and locked the door. Our idea of leadership has normalised unethical behaviour, as qualities that are linked to ethical one seem to be seen as weaknesses. People have had to swim or sink, and I don’t really blame anyone who hasn’t stood against the current. However, the tide is turning.
The following speakers all touched upon this topic in different ways, notably the values of the Post Office and how understanding what motivates a person helps to understand why they do things (like people who aren’t good at talking about themselves in a positive way, or people who seem unable to commit to certain things because they believe God is in control -which different religions approach in different ways-). Or the story behind the social enterprise Open Cinema, whose founder says has helped him find his place in the world through helping others find theirs. Or even, at last, what religious literacy actually mean, as people tend to make assumptions instead of asking people about them (an example of this was a Muslim man given a prayer room with the expectation of praying 5 times a day when he approaches his faith differently). My generation seem to increasingly identify ourselves from our religion over other characteristics, and it’s not just Muslims who are doing it (and not just me among the Christians…). When it occupies such a big part of our life, the idea that you can just remove it like a hat as soon as you walk through the door looks unbelievably silly, and also it shows a poor understanding of the fact that we all have things we believe, and the atheist humanist who also thinks we should treat people with dignity and respect isn’t going to be any less able to stop doing that just because he doesn’t believe in God. Hopefully this event will be just the start of a broader conversation that allows people to better understand where others are coming from, since empathy seems to be a rare quality and some people don’t even make the effort to try.
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