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The Company You Keep: Does it Need Transformation?

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Shaping corporations to enhance rather than crush the spirit of employees turns out to be the best strategy long-term for getting rich.

This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Management guru Richard Barrett reports that creativity, fulfillment, and social responsibility have redrawn the bottom line for successful companies. The best predictor of whether or not your company will thrive is whether people like you have to leave your highest values in the parking lot.

It was one of those situations in which, at least for awhile, everyone lost: My childhood friend lost, the firm he worked for lost, maybe even the world lost a little.

A natural "people" person, my friend went to Stanford and Harvard Business School and was then snapped up by the staid and conservative McKinsey & Co., perhaps the worlds most influential consulting firm. He loved the work and was good at it -- trying to change things for the better in ways that powerful and caring business people can -- but he carried one not-so-small burden: My friend is gay, and for every McKinsey social function that he could not dodge, he felt obliged to find an understanding woman to hang on his arm. While gay partners were rumored to exist within the firm, there were no openly gay partners. As the time approached for his potential golden handshake of partnership, he felt his soul being crushed. He sweated and fretted. His work suffered. He was let go.

But that was years ago and times have changed. Before he took his next job, my friend was clear with his new colleagues about who he is and what he believes in. That company embraced him, he put his heart into his work, and now he and his life partner have a magnificent house and wonder what to do with their pile of money. McKinsey, too, has woken up: The firm not only has gay partners and female partners and a spreading rainbow of ethnic partners, it now sends senior consulting teams to bring overtly spiritual tools into the corporate workplace -- tools designed for opening and awakening managers and employees alike.

So, the word is out: Shaping corporations to enhance rather than crush the spirit of employees turns out to be the best strategy long-term for getting rich. And, while using spiritual tools for the express purpose of making large corporations even richer may seem creepy, consider this: Fifty-one of the world's 100 largest economies are now global corporations -- not governments -- so perhaps the best bet for saving the planet is to teach these corporations to understand the enormous bottom-line payoffs when they become good stewards to their employees, their communities, and to the environment.

The question, of course, is how?

Enter Richard Barrett, a high-powered consultant with his own firm and author of A Guide to Liberating Your Soul and Liberating the Corporate Soul: Building a Visionary Organization. He's an ebullient fellow: if you ask, "How are you?" he wont say "Fine" (an acronym, he says, for "Feelings Inside Not Expressed"), he'll say, "Bordering on the fantastic!" and perhaps engulf you in a bear hug. Barrett is a man with a mission, and it shows.

Barrett was for twenty-odd years a transport engineer working mostly for the World Bank. He devoted his spare time to reading psychology, religion, and science. Then, in the early nineties, a personal transformation broke him out of what he calls his old "fear-based belief system" and set him on a path to become what he dreamed of being, a spiritual teacher. In a series of conversations with World Bank economists, he realized that values were not a conscious part of their lending decisions (the economists considered lending billions to reshape countries "values neutral"). But after Barrett hosted a series of brown-bag lunches to make conscious the values influencing the bank's lending, the idea caught on. Soon Barrett was named Values Coordinator, and he created a worldwide conference to expand the discussion. Then he created his own firm to continue fulfilling what had become his personal mission statement: "To create a sustainable future for my children and my children's children by supporting leaders in building values-driven organizations."

Says Barrett, "Organizations are living entities that share needs and motivations similar to those of individual people. The critical question is whether these corporate values are conscious, shared, and lived, or unconscious and undiscussed. When corporate values remain unconscious and undiscussed, they tend to reflect the values of the leader, not the employees. The likely result: The creative potential of the employees is either crushed or taken home to their hobbies and charities." What's the bottom-line performance difference between companies with fulfilled and unfulfilled employees? Citing a number of specific studies, Barrett has a number: 39%. That's huge!

A Hierarchy of Values

To help bring personal and corporate values into alignment, Barrett has spent the last few years developing an elegant tool called a "values audit." His audit builds on the work of psychologists such as Abraham Maslow who identified that people have a hierarchy of needs and motivations: physical needs for health and safety; emotional needs for relationship and self-esteem; mental or intellectual needs for achievement and personal growth; and spiritual needs for meaning, making a difference in the world, and service. Barrett recognized that organizations have a corresponding hierarchy. He also recognized that each level in the hierarchy has a corresponding set of values. For example, corporate and/or personal values such as profit, wealth, and control reflect what he calls a Level 1 "Survival Consciousness," while values such as vision and ethics reflect a Level 7 "Service Consciousness."

Although Barrett's corporate audits are simple and cheap to perform, the results are a powerful diagnostic of corporate and team cultures. The most important lesson, he says, is that employee and corporate values need to match each other. Says Barrett, shared values -- high or low -- tend to create a strong, successful corporate culture. For example, profit- and self- esteem-driven Wall Street trading firms (Levels 1 & 3) succeed because they attract people who share these lower-level values. The problem is that these values tend not to be sustainable because employees burn out and lose all sense of meaning. In the long run, companies that focus on employee fulfillment, customer care, social responsibility, and shareholder value are more successful. Why? Because these companies have more stakeholders who care about their success.

Transform Your Job/Career Into a Mission

Says Barrett, "In start-up companies the corporate culture corresponds to the personality of the founder. When the founder hands over authority to a CEO, a culture begins to take on some of the aspects of the personality of the new leader. If the company is to achieve long-lasting success it must develop a culture that is independent of the personality of the leader. Ideally, the maturing establishes a culture and an identity based on the collective motivation and shared values of all the people who work for the company. When that happens, a core culture emerges that supports the common good."

And what if the company culture doesn't support its employees? Well, says Barrett, that's where the real work begins. "The first and maybe the hardest part of a corporate transformation," explains Barrett, "is that managers must learn to be authentic. They must shed their fears so that there is no separation from who they are at home and who they are at work -- and they must create an environment where everyone else can be themselves, too. Such authenticity is a prerequisite for building trust. Second, managers must care about developing their people. The more time spent in helping employees grow and develop, the more successful their organization will be. Third, managers must see their roles as "barrier busters." They must eliminate roadblocks so that their teams can be fully productive and focus on what they do best. Finally, managers must be mentors and coaches. They must shift their beliefs about their role from one of control and compliance to one of building motivation and commitment."

And while this advice is aimed toward Barret's usual clients, upper-level management, the wisdom applies to any level. As he points out "corporations don't transform, people do." If you feel you have to leave your values in the parking lot, you will not be operating at your full potential. You need to transform your workplace or find a better place to work.

Richard Barrett’s Seven Levels of Personal and Corporate Consciousness

Most of us start our working lives seeking basic security, relationships, and self-esteem — the lower three levels of consciousness. But if we’re lucky, a crisis or a period of deep reflection brings on a transformation. We begin to shed our fears and trust ourselves and the world around us. Our self-interest expands and we begin to identify not just with ourselves and our families, but with our communities, our society, and perhaps even with the environment. Freed from trying to please others or to compete against them, we become able to fully engage our own creativity in tandem with others. If we work for companies and leaders that share our values, we are likely to feel safe, perform at our best, and make the world a better place.

Use the following chart to get a sense of how these levels are manifested in people, companies, and leaders. Keep in mind that no person or company operates at any one level all the time. Each person, each company, and each leader is most likely a mix of two or three adjoining level. Even Mother Teresa, an ultimate visionary leader, was known to be quite demanding and unsympathetic to her staff.

Level 7: Service

Compassion
Ethics
Forgiveness
Humility
Long-term perspective
Peace
Vision
Wisdom

Level 6: Making a Difference

Counseling
Customer focus
Employee fulfillment
Environmental stewardship
Intuition
Making a difference
Mentoring
Volunteer work

Level 5: Meaning

Common good
Creativity
Enthusiasm
Generosity
Honesty
Humor/Fun
Integrity
Meaning
Risk-taking

Level 4: Transformation

Clarity
Courage
Empowerment
Learning
Motivation
Perseverance
Personal development
Responsibility
Teamwork

Level 3: Self-Esteem

Efficiency
Power 
Prestige 
Pride
Productivity
Professional growth
Qualification
Quality
Reliability
Results orientation
Status 

Level 2: Relationship

Being liked 
Belonging
Excessive courtesy 
Manipulation 
Open communication
Respect
Tradition 

Level 1: Survival

Caution 
Control 
Nutrition
Physical exercise
Profit
Security
Self-discipline
Wealth 

Richard Barrett is an international keynote speaker and the author of Liberating the Corporate Soul (Butterworth-Heinemann) and A Guide to Liberating Your Soul (Fulfilling Books).