In the Workplace
Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands
Fred Kofman, a leading organizational theorist, and author of Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values argues that the essential spirit of business is not greed or self-advancement but compassion, even love.
Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, argued that there are two forces guiding human actions: benevolence towards others and self-interest. Smith claimed that with the development of the market economy and with the separation of individuals from their communities of origin, self-interest becomes the primary factor—but it can never fully replace benevolence as a necessary condition for attaining “universal opulence.”
As Smith said, “The most apt to prevail [in the marketplace] are those who can draw others’ self-interest in their favor.… ‘Give me what I want, and you will have what you want’ is the meaning of every offer.” So every act of commerce is an act of mutual service. Even though it can be motivated by self-interest, the market system channels selfish energy towards helping others.
This is not, however, the way business is portrayed in our culture. We are constantly told that the business world is essentially evil. Though there are indeed many examples of human and environmental disasters caused by business, these examples contradict rather than reflect the spirit of a free market. This spirit is essentially virtuous and oriented towards the attainment of the highest human values.
The marketplace is a realm of voluntary transactions. Unlike a battlefield or a prison, in a free market nobody is forced to do something he or she doesn’t want to do—as long as every person respects the right of every other participant to do only what they want to do; that is, to choose their behavior without coercion. The market is an alchemical process that transforms self-interest into service, pettiness into greatness, greed into the desire to satisfy others’ interests.
Concern for and commitment to others’ well-being is the essence of compassionate love. In twelve years of teaching and consulting, I have found this love in most of the business leaders I’ve met. Perhaps I’ve been blessed. Perhaps, just by coincidence, I’ve only worked with enlightened organizations. I don’t think so. Most people would not consider General Motors, Chrysler, Electronic Data Systems, Microsoft, Royal Dutch Shell, Citibank and American Express to be particularly “spiritual” organizations. However, the business executives I’ve worked with in these organizations seek meaning in their life as passionately as my fellow students of Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy. The executives I work with all feel a calling to make this world a better place. Every person who has tasted the bittersweet emptiness of fulfilling petty desires knows there is a deeper thirst that transcends them, a happiness that cannot be achieved through any object. That is true happiness, of which ordinary pleasure is but a pale reflection.
Business is a field of possibilities. The market is a stage on which every human being manifests his or her consciousness. When this manifestation is guided by transcendent values, business becomes a work of art. When this manifestation is guided by vice and unconsciousness, work turns into hell, a swamp of suffering and bondage.
If we look deeply into our experience, we find two basic attitudes or frames of mind: love and fear. The first is based on a sense of fullness, an overflowing inner richness that wants to express itself. The second is based on a sense of emptiness, a feeling of lack that wants to be filled by external objects, whether material, psychological or even spiritual.
Any activity can be performed out of love or out of fear. Love and fear are features of the performer, not of the activity. It is possible, for example, to play a game of tennis out of fear, trying to prove that one is better than the other, resorting to distracting or hurting the other player to get an advantage. It is also possible to play the game out of love, seeking to express one’s precious worth, which would still involve putting your heart and soul into the game, playing to win.
Business activities can also stem from either fear or love. Fear-based competition is the game of hungry ghosts. In desperation, people turn the natural hierarchy of means and ends upside down, sacrificing the higher to the lower. There are no limits to the strategies people motivated by fear may use to make money.
Love-based players keep their priorities straight, taking the lower as a path to the higher. Those who transcend their fears, through accomplishment or realization, find that love is the most powerful engine for playing and working in the world.
A striking illustration of this type of play can be found in the Bhagavad Gita. Prince Arjuna is besieged by doubts as he faces members of his own family in a battlefield. Torn between the desire to do his duty (fight) and not to harm his relatives (leave), he turns to his charioteer, none other than Lord Krishna, for advice. In one of the most beautiful pieces of mystical poetry ever written, Krishna tells Arjuna, in no uncertain terms, to go to battle and fight with all his might, focusing on the process and releasing the outcome. In blazing words, Krishna explains that virtuous behavior is more important than life and death itself. If Arjuna were about to play a tennis match with his brother or develop a marketing campaign for Windows XP instead of fighting a civil war, I suspect Krishna’s advice would be no different.
Many a tennis player and businessperson has faced Arjuna’s dilemma. The regard for the other can get in the way of playing the best one can. In order for me to win, the other must lose (at least in the small zero-sum game), and that offends a certain sense of fairness or a wish that everybody could win together. The problem with that wish is that it co-opts any competitive game and therefore forecloses a set of opportunities for the expression of our human possibilities. It also subtly patronizes the opponent, assuming that “he couldn’t take it”; that is, that he couldn’t metabolize the loss as nourishment for his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development. In the larger game, the logic is not zero-sum: everybody can win. A full-out game ennobles all players equally: there is no difference between the winner and the loser.
This illustrates a common deep misunderstanding of the developmental process. Psychologists have found that the best environment to foster growth is one that combines support and challenge in the right proportions. A world in which nobody ever loses or suffers a reversal of fortune might be extremely comfortable, but could leave the inhabitants stuck. To grow, the baby needs to exit the womb and face the drama of life on Earth.
There is a Japanese saying that “a defect is a treasure.” Those who adopt the Total Quality Management philosophy assert that a problem in the product is always a symptom of a deeper problem in the process. By addressing the root cause, they aim to improve the whole system at a fundamental level. They want to solve not only this specific defect, but many others that could potentially be produced by an out-of-control process. We could say that suffering is a life defect. When we experience suffering, we need to perform a root-cause analysis. We need to investigate the assumptions that it stems from unfulfilled desires and that we need to fulfill those desires by attaining more and more things. Perhaps we might find out that our suffering stems from ignorance and attachment, and strive to transcend these causes.
At the lower levels, a competitive activity affords the opportunity to prove one’s worth by beating the opponent. Less mature people play to assuage their fears of worthlessness, to show that they are somebody. Their belief is that by establishing their worth, they will be able to experience the higher pleasures of life—even though this very search for worth subtly reinforces their belief that they are inherently unworthy.
At the highest levels, business affords the opportunity for one’s humanity to show up in the particular role of a businessperson. Like a diamond with infinite facets, human nature manifests in infinite ways. Business is one way in which self-aware radiance can shine forth. Business is a stage on which the unfathomable mystery that underlies it all expresses itself. Business is a space in which emptiness coalesces and does business with, against, through and for the sake of itself. This is the highest purpose of business: to be a field in which the absolute recognizes and manifests itself within the relative. The ultimate point of business is to fully develop the wisdom and compassion of the human being who engages in it.
Most of us spend most of our time in work-related activities. Work occupies more time than all other wakeful activities combined. If work-time is wasted time, dead time or unconscious time, the great majority of our life ends up wasted, dead or unconscious. If we conduct our professional activities in a space of pusillanimity (from the Latin, meaning “small soul”), life becomes petty. That is why it is crucial to go beyond business-as-usual and recognize that business is an essential component of conscious life, a gesture of human magnanimity (great soul).
The larger purpose of business—or sport, or anything for that matter—is not to win or make money, but to serve as an arena for enlightenment. Of course, to preserve the arena the players must still attempt to score points and win. But now the desire of winning in business is subordinated to the desire of winning in life. That is, of attaining enlightening liberation for oneself and all sentient beings. Trying to win stops being the end. It becomes a strategy, a conditional means to pursue an unconditional goal.