Orthodox Christian Interaction with Modern Corporate Culture
Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style.-Albert Camus
Have the fashionable developments in the science of business management turned some business enterprises toward collectivism? If the message of today’s most outspoken and influential teachers who have succeeded in shaping the thought of modern institutional leadership doctrine are any indication of what is happening within corporations today, this seems quite probable.
The late Robert K. Greenleaf, whose work is praised and affirmed by Stephen Covey (an internationally respected leadership authority), clearly teaches that the responsible and successful leader is one who considers the well being of society or mankind as a whole to be the ultimate motivating purpose behind all company activities. Greenleaf’s famous book, Servant Leadership, is written upon this fundamental premise, as is evidenced in his thesis beginning in chapter 2, entitled “The Institution as Servant”:
“…caring for persons, the more able and less able serving each other, is the rock upon which good society is built… now most of it (caring) is mediated through institutions… If a society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them” (Greenleaf 62).
By “new regenerative forces operating within them” Greenleaf is of course referring to forces that he believes can become available when servitude or complete self-sacrifice for the good of society, institution or corporation, becomes the supreme good in the minds of its leaders. These “self-less” leaders will then work to cultivate an organizational culture based upon their ethic of self-less servitude. Transforming and strengthening existing organizational cultures, then, is viewed by such leaders as vital, because a good strong culture has the power to fill its members with the shared purpose of its leaders. Nikos Mourkogiannis, author and leadership strategy advisor, has this to say about the importance of a shared purpose:
“Purpose is so powerful because it is founded on deeply held ideas about what is right and what is worthwhile. These ideas are normally rooted in one or more traditions that have been articulated by moral philosophers. Because these traditions have been shared in some form throughout history, they draw on common experience and worldviews. They thus link top management and other employees in a natural and organic way. When a company or foundation is driven by such a shared purpose, its morale will be higher, the quality of innovation will improve, its internal and external relationships will be strengthened, and its leaders will be able to point the way forward with genuine conviction” (Mourkogiannis).
If this isn’t convincing enough of the power of culture to bring purpose, one is reminded of the words of Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor of cultural anthropology, Ernest Becker, who teaches us that:
“… if the function of self-esteem is to give the ego a steady buffer against anxiety, … one crucial function of culture is to make continued self-esteem possible. Its task, in other words, is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action.” (79)
If these thinkers are correct, and they most certainly are, then a properly constructed culture, as many business leaders are finding out, is a most powerful tool to boost the success of a business, because it taps into a most powerful driving force behind most of human social behavior, i.e. the need of individuals to protect and enhance their self-esteem.
Nucor Steel is a prime example of a company that has used this business model effectively:
“The secret, according to Nucor’s CEO Ken Iverson, is the steel firm’s corporate culture. ‘Without a doubt, Nucor’s culture is its most important source of competitive advantage, and it always will be,’ explains Iverson” (McShane 505).
But why is culture so important in how it functions? Many business leaders identify three main reasons, which are clearly described in the following excerpt From Stephen L. McShane’s book, Canadian Organizational Behavior:
“First, corporate culture is a deeply embedded form of social control that influences employee decisions and behavior. Culture is pervasive and operates unconsciously. You might think of it as an automatic pilot, directing employees in ways that are consistent with organizational expectations. Second, corporate culture is the “social glue” that bonds people together and makes them feel part of the organizational experience. Employees are motivated to internalize the organization’s dominant culture because it fulfills their need for social identity… Finally, corporate culture assists the sense-making process. It helps employees understand organizational events. They can get on with the task at hand rather than spend time trying to figure out what is expected of them. Employees can also communicate more efficiently and reach higher levels of cooperation with each other because they share common mental models of reality.” (McShane 505)
Without a doubt then, culture has or is becoming the dominant driving force in today’s top “for-profit” business organizations: but what, if any, might be the actual social ramifications of this phenomenon? Besides the rosy, socially advantageous picture painted by the proponents and followers of this business model, is there the possibility that there exists other completely overlooked or accidental consequences for using this “shared mental model” approach in the generation of greater material benefits and self esteem for organizational members?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives one definition of collectivism as: “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity”. Wikipedia Encyclopedia more vividly defines collectivism as “any philosophic, political, economic or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. Collectivists usually focus on community, society, or nation”. In the case of many business corporations, there is grand emphasis on the concept of the “team” and “teamwork”. Individuals are often commended, even rewarded with promotions based upon their being perceived as being “team players”. The team, not the individual, is the primary value. An individual’s value is reduced to that person’s level of commitment, self-sacrifice, and talent that he or she brings to the team – the team seeing itself as one of many important teams whose heroic purpose is to selflessly serve the larger team of society at large. If this is not collectivism, then what is?
Even so, what’s wrong with that? After all, the whole idea seems so promising, offering much hope for the betterment of society. These are cultures driven by a unity of individual desires to do what’s right for fellow men. It’s charity at work — a well oiled piece of heroically altruistic, self-directed machinery. And besides, doesn’t all extended human group interaction eventually give way to some form of collectivism anyway?
If there are dangers in this collectivist approach to doing business, they lie within what this philosophical system makes of the importance of individuals relative to the group. The group cultures of some companies are so strong that they are literally “cult-like because of the dedication and loyalty that the employees show for the company, and its purpose and values” (Tucker 318). What does this mean for individuals who don’t conform or won’t buy in to the culture? Usually, they are rejected as if they are some kind of disease. Dan DiMicco, current CEO of Nucor Steel has said that “Some of the people the company hires don’t fit the Nucor culture and quit, because they’re unable to successfully work on a team” (Tucker 319).
In my own experience as an employee of Nucor Steel, I can testify that violations of culture norms or company values can bring instant, critical actions from the management, up to immediate dismissal, and are often brought to the attention of or reported to management by fellow teammates. In fact, teammates who fail to report others for not living up to specific cultural expectations, like safety requirements, are told that this “failure to report” such incidents is itself a violation of cultural expectations that, if found out, will be considered grounds for immediate termination of employment. In a lot of cases, however, peer pressure is what causes people to leave, not actions of management. Dan DiMicco explains how this works at Nucor: “When you measure, and pay for productivity, and have people on teams, most of the personnel issues are resolved quickly. Other team members don’t want slouches that negatively affect their weekly paycheck” (Tucker 320). In one isolated incident at Nucor, this motivation on the part of the team played itself out in a scenario where “the team members chased one person right out of the plant with an angle iron” (Tucker 320).
If, in our indiscriminate zeal for pursuing the altruistic heroism that is at the heart of our team (collectivist) philosophy, we have become so callous that we fail to recognize what can go wrong in such an environment, then perhaps we should immerse ourselves in reflection upon how this mindset has played itself out throughout the history of human civilization. For it is commonly understood that throughout human history, altruistic heroism, without which collectivism cannot thrive, has not brought peace and harmony, but war and things even worse than war. Wherever it has become the supreme ideal in the minds of the masses, altruistic heroism combined with collectivist ideology has led to the ushering in of what we now can clearly identify as being the most destructive and oppressive forms of society ever. From fascism through communism, how many millions of individuals have been persecuted and sacrificed in the name of “a better future for mankind” because they were seen as obstacles on the path toward the perfection of civilization?
In all fairness to the likes of Robert Greenleaf, Stephen Covey, and Dan DiMicco, it is likely that these men, in their positions, have more or less always maintained a strong respect for the well being of the individual. The problem lies in the likelihood that many of their disciples may lack the maturity to be as discriminating. Hence, one possible outcome of this is that the more that collectivist and altruistic thought processes become ingrained in the minds of the masses through their involvement as employees of this ever growing body of such organizations, the more predisposed they could become to disregarding the intrinsic value of an individual human being and instead, develop an unhealthy socialistic world view.
This could result in an increased threat to world peace as the real (though often ignored) problem of “peak oil” continues to drive up the cost of petroleum – the life blood of our technological and materialistic culture. This oil-driven increase in the cost of living and consequent decrease in quality of life for many middle class individuals within capitalist systems seems to be already creating a significant amount of social unrest, as the wealth gap continues to increase. Troubling political protests denouncing economic inequality are on the rise, with increasing numbers of groups who are actively seeking dissolution of current governments that respect individual rights in favor of more egalitarian ones. What we may be witnessing in the present are the beginnings of a push toward a new political revolution. With this being the case, it should be clear that our corporations would do well in taking care not to neglect the need to create cultures responsibly, so that their cultures come with the built-in means of conveying to all team members the idea that an individual’s life and well being towers in importance over the material prosperity of the entire group.
With all of this in mind, what of us Orthodox Christians, who in the meanwhile find ourselves working for a corporation which foists upon its employees a cultural hero system that thrives upon a spirit of collective altruistic heroism? Should we passionately buy into it because it seems to be based upon Christian principles and virtues? Should we, with heart-felt commitment, dedicate ourselves unquestioningly to our noble corporate cultures and goals in order to proudly answer the call of those who are of like mind with Robert Greenleaf, who himself felt that the Church must “become a major building force in a new society that is more just and more loving, and that provides greater creative opportunities for its people” (Greenleaf 93)? Should we likewise believe, as Benedictine Brother David Steindle-Rast, who once stated during an interview that “the goal of Christianity is to transform our present fallen world and society into the ‘other world’, especially through politics” (Brigid)?
As tempting as these ideas are -and they are indeed temptations — the best answer is no. The reason the answer is no, for the discerning Christian of true belief, is explained quite well within the body of an article called “The Gospel Call to Monasticism”, written by Nun Brigid:
“… there is a fundamental misunderstanding here: there will be no ‘heaven on earth’, no final resolution of the battle between good and evil, until the second coming of Christ. ‘Do you think that I have come to give peace upon the earth? I tell you nay, but rather a sword’ (Luke 12:51-52). Christianity does not seek to create a future earthly Utopia; it strives to save souls now, by preparing them to live in the heavenly kingdom… He does not counsel those who are oppressed by the circumstances of our fallen world to rise up in rebellion, but to overcome the “evil” of our fallen state through the ‘good’ of love for God and man, and the practice of the virtues. Of course, it is also our duty to replace outward evil with outward good where we can, so that those who are weak may not despair – but with the idea of saving souls, not of creating a worldly Utopia.” (Brigid)
If it is difficult for most Christians to agree with such an extreme position nowadays, Brigid offers a good explanation as to why this is, and it is because “Faith in the reality of God, and the future Kingdom, and the fallenness of our world had been replaced with faith in ‘progress’ and man’s ‘perfectibility’ through proper education, science, and appropriate social measures” (Brigid).
Is Brigid correct in this assertion? Do most of us lack hope in Christ’s promise of eternal life and content ourselves, as non-believers do, with striving for the self-esteem (pride) and false immortality (vain glory) that we may obtain by heroically acting out our various roles within the cultural hero schemes of our work place and in society at large? Have we completely forgotten or worse yet, never realized that unremitting repentance and the systematic shedding of self-esteem through faith, prayer, and obedience to Christ is the only true path to salvation? It really makes us wonder, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
None of this is meant to suggest that one’s Christianity should be cause for one to object to a healthy corporate culture built on sound principles or to belligerently rebel in the spirit of pseudo-piety. One does, however, need to keep corporate or any other kind of culture (even one’s religious culture) in its proper place; as being subject to what must always come first – loving and trusting God above all and loving others (even your enemies) as you love yourself.
Becker, Ernest. The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on
the Problem of Man. New York: The Free Press, 1971.
Brigid, Nun. “The Gospel Call to Monasticism.” Web. 20 October 2011.
Camus, Albert. The Fall . (New York: Knopf, 1957), p.133.
Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1997.
Holy Bible. Allan Wallerstedt. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993.
McShane, Stephen L. Canadian Organizational Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2006.
Mourkogiannis, Nikos. Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Leadership” Nikos On Line. 11 April 2011. Web. 20 October 2011.
Tucker, Dean A. Using the Power of Purpose: How to Overcome Bureaucracy and
Achieve Extraordinary Business Success. Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2008.