Creating Organizational Soul

"Southeastern USA at Night," (NASA, International Space Station, 01/29/12). NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
“Southeastern USA at Night,” (NASA, International Space Station, 01/29/12). Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

After publishing Corporate Culture Change, the Corporate Culture Sourcebook, and Ethical Leadership in the late 1980’s, I was retained by Lotus Development Corporation (now known as Lotus Software) in Cambridge, Massachusetts to help them align their culture behind a new network-centric strategy to better differentiate their company from its arch-rival Microsoft. Since Microsoft owned the only PC operating system required for running almost all applications at the time and had developed the Office suite of products that all worked together, it dominated the software market. Lotus could only compete by creating a new space and by becoming the preferred partner for a world-wide network of value-added vendors. Microsoft’s proclamation that it wanted to dominate the world did not make people want to jump in bed with them if they could avoid it. Culture, therefore, played a major role in Lotus’s success.

The history is a vital part of this story. When Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975, he was not known as the kind and generous, philanthropic benefactor that he is now after establishing the Gates Foundation and donating $40 billion of his personal wealth. In the early days of the software wars, he was notorious for working 20 hours a day and for being critical and demeaning of anyone for being less than brilliant in the brief time he begrudgingly gave them. Evidently, he and Steve Jobs were taking the same anger pills. He clearly hadn’t discovered meditation and massage or asked gurus to help him become an enlightened leader. While he has mellowed over time and has become one of the most benevolent givers in history, he wasn’t always so kind and gentle. But back to the main story.

In order to ensure that its culture was not only aligned with its new strategy, but also with its most important customers, Lotus established a Soul Committee whose sole purpose was to ensure that day-to-day behaviors were congruent with the lofty operating principles and core values they had created with great care and diligence. I was asked to serve as the consultant to the Soul Committee. As a result of that work and the increasing awareness of the power of culture on human development and organizational success, I decided to write the book Creating Organizational Soul: the Source of Positive Change and Transformation.

My path to that decision took a rather circuitous route with multiple potholes along the way. A year in Vietnam rocked my perception of the world and how it works. Eight years working in a jail rehab program with inmates and delinquents opened my eyes to the ways in which the environment influences peoples’ lives. Four years working with drug abusers, teen-age pregnant girls, and social service organizations deepened my appreciation for how hard life can be for folks. Two years working in hospitals put me face to face with the results of living in an unhealthy culture and practicing unhealthy behaviors. Two years in an elementary school gave me a better understanding of how classroom environments established by variety of teachers can produce positive or negative outcomes for kids. And twenty years working with leaders of the largest corporations in the world broadened my perspective on the relationship between healthy organizations and healthy people. In short, I found that soulful organizations make people healthy, happy and productive, while soulless organizations suck the life and energy out of people. And, just to be clear, soulful organizations are more profitable in the long run.

Based on that hodgepodge of experience, I identified the seven principles of soulful organizations.

  1. If every interaction, day after day, is viewed as an opportunity to create a meaningful work environment (humane, innovative, productive, and fun), the possibilities for organizational soul will take root.
  2. When words and actions are congruent, people are more motivated.
  3. When people feel good about what they are doing, productivity improves.
  4. When people are aligned with a larger purpose, passion develops.
  5. When customers experience an organization’s commitment to help, partnerships develop and trust builds.
  6. When people are continually thinking about what’s possible, innovation increases.
  7. If an organization creates a soul, it’s stakeholders will grow – and so will it.

If the idea of organizational soul still seems a little soft and fuzzy to you, here are some examples from a variety of organizations that might change your perception.

Google: “When I entered Google for the first time, I immediately caught a whiff of a culture that was distinct from any that I had experienced before. I saw many of the things I’d read about in the countless articles about Google and its culture. As I waited in the lobby for my host, I watched young hipsters in jeans flying through the halls on scooters. Through the glass doors, I could see people in conference rooms sitting on fat, brightly colored exercise balls as they intensely discussed issues during a video-conference. And as we walked to the interview room, we passed brightly lit micro-kitchens stocked with countless types of organic juices and bowls of fruit, and lined with bins full of nuts, cereal, crackers, and cookies – an indication of just one of Google’s most famous perks: free food. More interesting than the cool accoutrements, however, was the energy that filled the air at Google. There was a palpable sense that things were happening. The people in the hall wore expressions of thoughtfulness and intensity, rather than the typical corporate haggardness that pervades the cube farms of many of the companies I’d worked with in the past.” —Jesse Haines, Google Executive

Homeless Solutions: “I think of soul as the heart of the organization – those ways of being that make an organization alive and passionate about the work. I think of the energy, imagination, and creativity that one brings to work and the desire to make the many tasks of the work add up to the climax of success and achievement. Somehow, soul, life breath, and life-force work together. The justice orientation of our goals is that of making life and lives better, creating systems that are responsible and responsive, inviting all players to think, act, and lead for the good of all. How do we create soul at Homeless Solutions? I think it is by being drawn into the notion of acting justly, doing justice, and being fair to others and ourselves. I suspect it has to do with wanting the best for people around us, including the clients, tenants, and the (homeless) guests on whose behalf we work. Also, we demonstrate respect and care for our donors. Without their support, help, and energy, we could not be the vehicle for bringing help. I imagine it has to do with treating others as we want to be treated. Always looking for ways to stop and reach out to each other in genuine care.” —Dr. Betsey Hall, former CEO, Homeless Solutions.

Berkeley-Carroll Elementary School, Brooklyn, NY: When you enter a classroom with soul, children will look happy and engaged. They will greet you with a handshake and a smile, and they will look you in the eye. They realize they are ambassadors for the room, and they feel proud to show you around and introduce you to the learning and tradition that occur every day inside their room. A classroom with soul is a powerful place of intellectual and emotional growth. Every child feels certain he has a place, that he is important, and that his job is valuable. A soulful classroom doesn’t occur by accident, however. It happens through the daily activities, rituals, and traditions that a teacher builds into the children’s day. In my classroom, and many others in my school, I use an approach called “The Responsive Classroom” to build community, interdependence, and accountability into my room. Every morning, students in my classroom are greeted with a message that compliments their hard work from earlier in the week and forecasts upcoming events, activities, and projects. “Good Morning Powerful Readers” the message might read, or “Hello Mighty Mathematicians!” or “Good Morning Cooperative Classmates.” Every morning, they remember how powerful, smart, thoughtful, and eager they are. They are reminded that their hard work, focus, energy, and cooperation is valued and expected.” —Rebecca Bellingham, Instructor, Columbia Teachers College.

Whether it’s a for-profit corporation, a not-for-profit social service organization, or a school, you know an organization has soul when you hear people saying:

  • We trust each other
  • We feel empowered
  • We engage in meaningful dialogue
  • There is a high level of reflection on critical issues
  • We engage in healthy, issue-focused, non-personal conflict
  • We are passionate about a higher purpose
  • There is a high level of creative energy
  • We are inclusive
  • We are always learning
  • We are caring and compassionate
  • There is a high level of integrity
  • We value and respect differences
  • We are genuine
  • We are brutally honest about the facts of our situation
  • We encourage growth and well-being
  • We seek ways to help each other succeed
  • We collaborate
  • We hold each other accountable
  • We drive for results
  • We are open, honest, and direct

These norms and values just don’t happen without leadership role modeling and support. Leaders must demonstrate these norms and behaviors and design reward systems to reinforce them. If you would like to learn more about how these conditions are created and about other examples of soulful organizations, you can order Creating Organizational Soul here, or read it on Safari Books.

I believe our purpose in life is to develop our souls as individuals and as organizations. As individuals, we have been given the gift of possibility—the opportunity to take a spark of life and grow it into something meaningful. As organizations, the same possibility exists. In each moment, day-to-day, we have the opportunity to make a positive difference. We are either open to letting positive energy work in wondrous ways or we are not.


Also published on Medium.

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