Theology and Business: From “Order v. Sin” to Personhood, Relationship, and Community
Randal Franz, associate professor of management, Seattle Pacific University
This article is adapted by the author from “An Exercise in Theological Imagination,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Integration in Business.
Even before the recent Great Recession prompted many to rethink our current economic models, some leading management scholars and business titans were calling for the reinvention of management. I agree with them, but as a Christian business scholar I contend that we need to rethink our management models not simply because the context has changed around us – globalization, technology, etc. – but because at a deeper level our management models are out of sync with fundamental aspects of reality. There are some missing theological principles that have profound implications for management.
For the past 100 years, most management models have been designed for a world characterized by an implicit order that is imposed by power through hierarchical structures, within which opportunism, guile, and apathy (i.e. sin) are endemic. Order, power, hierarchy, and sin – these core theological truths form the bedrock of the managerial worldview. They describe the reality within which we live and therefore frame the kind of organizations we create.
Systems built upon these assumptions are effective because they do map onto important aspects of reality, but they are not the whole story. As Christians, we know that this picture of reality is missing some profoundly important theological considerations. We believe that the world is also inherently relational, personal, communal, and redemptive.
What can businesspeople glean from a theological anthropology that could reshape how they manage? From scripture, we know people were made to relate. We are persons in relationship. We find our identity and meaning in community. And we live in a world that is full of potential and is in the process of being restored by, and reconciled to, its Creator. This is a very different picture of reality than the model that shows us only order, power, hierarchy, and sin. To ignore these missing dimensions seriously misconstrues the object of our managerial attention; as a result, we incorrectly specify the systems and structures that we create to organize and control our world.
How would management and organizations be different if they were designed for a reality that is personal, relational, communal, and redemptive, as well as ordered, powerful, hierarchical, and sinful? As a management scholar, I have found the exercise of rethinking some managerial models in light of these missing theological constructs very enlightening.
Personal and Communal Structure: “Membership”
The normal understanding of organizational structure is as a social system of interacting positions and procedures designed to accomplish a productive purpose. How would an organization be structured if it embraced the fundamentally communal nature of reality? In contrast to merely contractual employment, “membership” resonates with a more communal orientation. Membership is more than paying dues or formally “joining” a club or church; it represents a level of involvement and identification with a collective enterprise. There is a sense of common purpose that engenders a close connection with the group. Members view themselves (and their interests) as part of the collective enterprise, such that they are willing to look beyond their narrow job descriptions and self-interest to do what it takes to help the organization succeed.
The notion of membership also resonates with the tendency to view organizations today as comprised primarily of volunteers. The experience and feeling of being a member can be encouraged and facilitated, but it can never be coerced.
A communal conception of membership would be based in shared interest and a common good. As a member of a club or organization, I assume some responsibility for the whole – I might pay dues, hold office, attend meetings, support activities, etc. I also expect to share or participate in certain collective benefits, such as friendship, camaraderie, outings, recognition, accomplishments, and success. Membership organizations will be characterized by more participative and/or democratic processes, requiring heightened levels of internal transparency so people can make informed decisions (e.g., engagement/participation, “open-book” management). To ensure that all members share in the fruits of their collective efforts, they may also employ profit-sharing compensation plans or even shared-ownership models such as stock options, employee stock ownership plans, and/or cooperatives.
Membership promotes a stewardship mindset, a communal orientation, and commitment to shared outcomes where participants become “keepers of the commons” for all their colleagues. We see some of these methods practiced in many companies. Theology provides a unifying framework and compelling justification for why such practices are effective and how they can be combined to create structures and systems that resonate with people’s fundamental nature.
Of course, this heightened level of membership commitment makes staffing decisions more difficult. It is harder to find and develop those who might be willing to join the community. Once they join, it becomes problematic to let them go if necessary. It is a simple decision to fire a mere employee, but membership is not so easily broken. As partners or even co-owners they have a very different stake in the enterprise of which they are a part. The purely instrumental calculus of human “resource management” becomes complicated – in a good way.
Personal Communication: “Voice” and “Dialogue”
Miscommunication and misunderstanding are so prevalent within organizations that good communication skills are vital in management. Rather than conceiving of communication as the effective transfer of information, what if we conceived of it as forging personal relationships and developing community? How do we manage when we respect the sacredness and appreciate the personhood of those with whom we interact?
A mutual awareness and availability to each other is a profoundly different encounter from the instrumental, impersonal transactions we often experience in organizations. Voice is the right to be heard and to have one’s concerns included, respected, and addressed by the whole. It does not guarantee one’s wishes will be granted, but it does ensure that one’s interests will be considered. Not everyone is entitled to voice; the right to voice is rooted in one’s connection to the enterprise and commitment to its success.
Being personal requires openness to the Other and disclosure of Self, both of which entail sharing information. Voice is an act of self-expression. It is a form of contribution – a gift of information often inaccessible to the Other. Voice is a form of engagement that expects a response. Indeed, Voice requires hearing and paying attention. Hearing someone respects their personhood.
Conversation and dialogue are key mechanisms by which organizational commitment and institutional change are fostered. Mutual Voice, or dialogue, is the medium of personal relationship. The day-to-day operation of the enterprise can be structured in such a way that a deep connection is built by respecting and responding to the voices of one’s stakeholders.
Relational and Personal Leadership: “Embodiment”
One task of a leader is to facilitate the establishment of personal connections with followers and mediate their connection to the organization. In this relational, personal reality, rather than maintaining a respectful distance, leaders strive for familiarity. Knowing one’s followers requires allowing oneself to be known. Authentic leadership demands leaders become persons for the people they are leading.
This affective, interpersonal dynamic resonates with transformational leadership, charismatic and visionary leadership, and trust. By connecting with people’s deeply held values, providing a compelling vision that captures their imagination, and connecting with individuals as persons such that they feel connected to the cause and/or their colleagues, leaders (and hence organizations) are able to foster strong bonds with their members. And once forged, such bonds are more likely to endure the vagaries of economic fluctuations and result in followers being willing to work hard and sacrifice for the leader (and organization).
Of course, followers can become too attached to a particular leader, such that their connection is with the person rather than with the enterprise. In these cases, the personal relationship overshadows their professional role. The interaction takes on a whole new character.
Since God is redemptive, communal, personal, and relational, and humans are a reflection of God, the organizations we create and the managerial systems we enact are poorer if we neglect of these realities. They are lonelier, meaner, more fragmented, and dysfunctional. Theology has valuable insights to contribute to the management conversation. The world needs new managerial ideas; it needs Christians to design and operate organizations that reflect the reality we know to be true.