Does measuring performance have to import the world’s target culture obsessed with achievement? If we do measure performance, how do we avoid making people feel judged, driven and devalued? Is it really possible for leaders in any workplace to measure in ways that encourage human flourishing?
This event launches a new booklet by Paul Valler in the Grove leadership series: Using Measurement Well (focusing on purpose without damaging relationships). Paul reviews the theological arguments for and against measurement and explore how a biblical framework can help us to understand what ‘good’ looks like when measuring performance. Showing how the way we measure can improve our organisational culture, this is for leaders in all types of organisation.
Paul Valler is a former Finance and Operations Director for Hewlett-Packard Ltd. With over 25 years of church leadership experience, he is now a mentor for ministers and Christian business people.
In May 2013, LICC joined with ShiftUK to host 85 young adults at an evening event called ‘Working for a Culture Shift’. Throughout the evening we explored the values driving the cultures of our workplaces and sectors, and asked how we might make a difference where we work. These three short films capture the main sections of the evening and pose thoughtful questions that you might like to explore with a small group of friends.
Mark Greene sees a project manager change the law of the Medes and the Persians. This article was originally published in EG Issue 33.
New year, new appraisal system: could be helpful, could be wearisome, could be liberating, could be destructive. This one, as far as Peter is concerned, is likely to be as beneficial as playing pass the parcel blindfold with a live grenade – everyone is going to suffer and someone is going to get badly hurt. In the new system 15% of employees have to be ranked ‘below standard’. And if you are ranked ‘below standard’ you lose your bonus and most of your inflation linked pay rise.
Peter (all names changed), is a senior project manager in a multi-national manufacturing company, and he has three issues with this system.
It arbitrarily changes the terms of everyone’s performance evaluation. Up to this point you could be the least talented member of a team and still be performing well above standard – a mere Christiano Ronaldo in a team full of Lionel Messis. This, after all, is a blue chip company making outstanding products for a discerning global market. It’s one thing for a company to seek to improve the quality and performance of its people, it’s another to arbitrarily call their work ‘below standard.’ It is unjust.
Secondly, Peter feels it will corrode relationships and team morale since it is likely to set up unhealthy rivalries within previously harmonious teams: people’s focus will no longer be on doing the best they can for the team but on doing the best they can to ensure that they are not in the bottom 15%, and that someone else is.
Peter’s third problem with the system is a practical one: no one in Peter’s team is actually performing below standard. If Peter complies with this process, it requires him to lie and to be involved in unjustly punishing a valued member of his team.
However, HR systems that are rolled out from the mountain tops of multinational companies are, like the laws of the Medes and Persians in Esther’s time, rarely amenable to change.
Someone is going to be hurt.
Peter prays, Peter ponders, and Peter, who happens to be on LICC’s Executive Toolbox, seeks advice from the other delegates. He returns to work and makes his views known to those above him. He knock, knock, knocks on heaven’s door in prayer but the system is not for turning. And so, he assigns Richard to the ‘below standard’ box. No bonus. A below inflation pay rise.
And we could leave the story there.
Peter has discerned injustice, prayed, sought advice, made a stand on someone else’s behalf, and he’s taken a risk by challenging the law of the Medes and Persians. He’s done what he could. Praise God for all of that.
And sometimes that’s where things end – in injustice. And sometimes one injustice can lead to another.
Peter’s senior manager has acquired an over-negative opinion of Richard. Peter fears for the employee’s future, particularly because this senior manager has a particularly forceful and intimidating communication style. So he prays and he consults his wife. She comments, “If your boss communicates forcefully, then, when the time comes, you too will need to communicate forcefully.” Which, if you knew quietly spoken Peter, is like asking a breeze to behave like a typhoon. Certainly, a whisper can be as effective as a roar but it’s harder to hear a whisper when someone is roaring. But Peter wasn’t just trying to salve his conscience he was trying to win justice. As Jeremiah 5:28 reminds us: it’s one thing to plead the case of the fatherless, it’s quite another to plead it to win.
So Peter prays. And he prays to the point where God says, “I’ve heard you on this one. Enough already. Leave it to me.”
So time passes and then on a particular day, the forceful manager explodes at some work done by Richard.
Before he knows it, Peter finds himself exclaiming loudly: “You’re out of order. You’ve gone too far this time.” He can hardly believe what he’s done. And he waits for the typhoon.
But his boss draws up a chair, sits down and quietly asks, “Do you think so?” And they talk about it.
Peter reminds me of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah was really exercised about something that was not right in the world – the devastation of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah prayed about it, for a long time.
Nehemiah didn’t have the power to change it himself but he had a boss with power. And a God with more.
Nehemiah prepared himself for an opportunity, and when the time came, Nehemiah, like Peter, acted boldly and unusually. In Nehemiah’s case he allowed the Emperor to see that his face was sad, something that those who served the Emperor were forbidden to do. And because Artaxerxes expected him and cared about him he noticed and enquired:
“Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” (Nehemiah 2:2)
And he and Nehemiah had a conversation. The rest, as they say, is history.
Well, we could leave Peter’s story there with his bold defence of his team member: Peter’s been prayerful, Peter’s been faithful, and Peter’s taken initiative. He’s taken a justice-driven, selfless, prayer-drenched, community-supported bold risk for the sake of another person. Praise God for all of that. But that was not the end of the story.
At the final Executive Toolbox workshop Peter told us that the company had changed the language
and terms of their ranking system: the percentage of people ranked in the bottom box would be 10% not 15%, the language used would be ‘below peers’ not ‘below standard’ and those so rated would receive half their bonus, as opposed to none, and would get half the inflation-linked pay rise.
Maybe it’s possible to change the law of the Medes and Persians. Maybe God really is interested in the inner workings of business. More specifically, the change in language reflects a change in philosophy. I can accept that I am not as good as others in my team, I can accept that though I have made a contribution to the business I may not deserve as much as others but I still deserve something, don’t I? And I do not deserve to be punished with a below-inflation rise if I have done a good job.
Peter accepted his calling and called on his God. The ethos has shifted. Not as much as Peter would have liked because he still felt that their forced ranking system could lead to unjust outcomes. Perhaps in the fullness of time it will shift some more. Still, progress has been made. God told Peter to leave it to him… and something remarkable has happened: a system has changed for the better.
And God spoke. And Peter heard him. And God acted. And Peter saw it.
And we could leave the story there and just reflect on the truth that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, that he answers prayer, that he can find ways round unjust human laws and unjust human practices, that he not only tells us to be faithful in the little things, but that he too is faithful in the little things.
And we could leave the story there.
But life is sometimes not that simple. The HR department came back to Peter and asked him to increase the percentage of people in the ‘below peer’ box, and Richard would have been the one to fill it. Enraged and saddened, Peter told his boss, the very boss who had had such a negative view of Richard. And Peter’s boss told Peter that he had already informed HR that no such thing would be happening. Peter’s boss had become Richard’s champion. As Proverbs 21:1 says: “The King’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”
And we could leave it there.
But I don’t suppose that Peter or God will.
Below you will find the audio for a series of 10 lectures by John Parmiter, based on his book ‘Ten at Work: Living the Commandments in Your Job’. In each lecture, John reflects on one of the commandments and its relevance in the modern workplace.
John is a town planner, surveyor and an LICC Associate speaking on a range of workplace issues. A partner at Roger Tym & Partners, John advises on planning policy and development projects for public and private sector clients. His book, Ten at Work is published by IVP in November and will be launched at LICC on Monday evening, 28th November.
1. Discovering Contentment – Listen here
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Exodus 20:17
‘We allow our thoughts to rob us of our present enjoyment because of our inability to exercise contentment.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
2. Remaining honest – Listen here
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” Exodus 20:16
‘Some people think that lies are mostly harmless or are only a temporary problem. Perhaps we talk about ‘white lies’. But as we tell that ‘little’ lie to shift the blame off us, we transfer it on to someone else. We may have managed to get ourselves off the hook, but we have just put someone else on it.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
3. Prospering with integrity – Listen here
“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15
‘While this commandment is, at face value, a prohibition against stealing any thing at any time under any circumstances, it is so much more than mere protection of other people’s possessions. Yes, there is an obvious impact of stealing on the life of any community, and the community will punish the transgressor, but the essential feature is that the transgressor loses not only freedom (both temporal and spiritual) but the presence of God.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
4. Maintaining healthy relationships – Listen here
“You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14
‘The workplace is often a social setting and so a primary place for forming relationships, which is good. Workplaces that foster healthy relationships can also be places of real fulfilment and blessing. Given the right circumstances they can be places where marriages and healthy relationships are valued, appreciated, supported and safeguarded, but much depends on the prevailing culture.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
5. Keeping the peace – Listen here
“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13
‘The anger expressed daily in our workplaces is rarely commented on; we just seem to take it for granted. We tolerate aggressive individuals because they are productive. Worse still, we bring our work culture home with us, as we berate our family members for poor performance or missed deadlines!’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
6. Living with our past – Listen here
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12
‘We need to acknowledge the wisdom and experience of older people at work and encourage them to take on the role of mentors to younger workers. We should treat them with respect, and encourage and support ways of keeping them productive and useful if they are able, for the good of the organization and their own self-esteem.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
7. Keeping a balance – Listen here
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Exodus 20:8
‘The fourth commandment is the longest and the one most directly relevant to work. But it’s not just about work. The Sabbath is so much more than the restful end of a weary week: it is what the week has been working towards: a day that belongs to God, one that he has poured his blessing into and one that is holy (separate). It is a day set apart from other days, when we can delight in God and his creation, rest like him, and reflect on how he has blessed us.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
8. Maintaining respect – Listen here
“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” Exodus 20:7
‘This commandment tells us that God’s name matters: to God himself, to us, and to everyone else, even if they don’t recognize it. It matters to God, as he is holy, the name above all names. It matters to us, as by elevating ourselves we are downgrading God, which is spiritually corrosive and unhealthy. It also matters to everyone else, as our work culture demonstrates too many examples of pride, arrogance, one-upmanship, power-broking and me-first behaviour, which harms and dehumanizes people.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
9. Working in freedom – Listen here
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” Exodus 20:4
‘Our work culture is suffering from an unhealthy worship of success, fame, influence and money. Or all three! And it is harming us and those we deal with, infecting our whole work culture.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
10. Staying focussed – Listen here
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:2-3
‘When I go to a networking event I find that I talk myself up: I describe significant projects I am involved in and impressive clients I am working for. I do all this to impress others because I work in a me-first work culture which influences me.’ John Parmiter
Download the corresponding PowerPoint Slides.
I want to begin with a question with which the UK evangelical business world has struggled in my lifetime: “What on earth do Christians think they are doing in business?” To answer it, I want to start with a more fundamental question: “Where does work fit in God’s plans?”
Evangelicals need to face a problem here; a story might help to illustrate this problem.
Older folk will remember Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in the 80’s, and may recall an evasive reply she gave at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to what she considered a difficult and vexatious question. She cleverly made a difficult question appear to be time-wasting, and even ridiculous, by replying that when she was sitting on a cloud strumming her harp, she may have time for such trivialities! But not now, she implied, on earth, as a busy PM.
What do people think about life after death? She obviously thought that heaven was a place without time constraints – indeed without much to do at all – and the idea of sitting on clouds represents the popular concept of the immateriality of the soul, of a disembodied eternity, which reflects the loss of our physical bodies when we die and go to heaven.
I think her concept of heaven is widely accepted within the church, and is almost universally thought by those outside the church to be its official doctrine. It is a concept which devalues the material, physical, existence we experience, and which is central to our work as business people. It is a concept which separates the spiritual and heavenly from the physical and worldly; in which the work of the church is spiritual and of permanent value, whereas the world of business is material and of significance only until Christ calls time and brings the world of physical life, including our business lives, to an end.
This concept has contributed to an awareness that the church doesn’t value business folk except as a mission field and a funding agency. This implies that if I go to church on Sunday without taking a colleague to hear the gospel, or without a large cheque to support the church’s evangelistic mission – to which I otherwise contribute only in my spare time – I am a failure as a Christian. I continue going to church, but sermons and house groups are focused on a spiritual life which disparages the greater part of my working life.
Such thinking is sub-Christian and unbiblical. There is good news in the gospel for business folk, and this good news – when I finally allowed it to marinade in my business life – has transformed my purpose, my whole reason for being in business.
This paper will therefore begin with a scamper through the big picture, the story of the world as I think scripture presents it to us, before focusing on the place of work, and finally looking at what I understand to be God’s calling for our business lives. It ends with some examples of people who model the Christian vision for good business.
Theology: The Big Picture
At the beginning, God created the world and humanity and declared it all “very good”. Also at the beginning, God ordained work as a good for humanity. Work had several elements – to subdue the earth, to work it and to care for it. And for global success in God’s creation project, we would have to be fruitful and multiply! This ordering of the world comes before the Fall.
The Fall – human rebellion against God’s good order – brought a decisive break in relationships between God and humanity, which implicated the whole earthly creation. The mission of Jesus was the restoration of these relationships, the re-affirmation of the original order and the re-establishment of God’s universal kingdom or rule. The possibility for this restoration was achieved by his sacrificial death, and inaugurated or commenced in his resurrection.
As a result, the hope for creation and humankind which is promised to us in Christ is for the restoration of God’s rule, also called (by Matthew) the kingdom of heaven. Just as this started on earth, so it will be completed on earth, as described in the Lord’s prayer:
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth, as in heaven.
This means nothing other than that God’s will is for his kingdom to be realised in the earthly realm as it already is realised in the heavenly. In other words, it is the renewal of the creation which was once declared very good, and will so be declared again, when Jesus returns to earth in glory and in power to judge sin finally, and to establish his rule de facto.
So God’s plan is, and has been since the Fall, to re-institute his rule on earth through Christ. His people are those who collaborate with his vision of a world of wise order, glorious beauty and transparent justice. They are those who hate the sin and evil which destroy good relationships and the earth’s abundance. And when he returns in judgement he will finally remove all that prevents his kingdom being realised on earth in practice, and transform or perfect all that helps to build it.
The Place of Work
Working the earth is about using the abundant capacities of the earth to grow food, rear animals, extract minerals, develop and fashion products – so that humankind can be fed, clothed, housed and enjoy rest. These activities, along with a myriad others, are the stuff of our work and our business lives.
Using, or subduing, the earth is less fashionable today than the requirement to care for it. Care for the earth is about not subduing it to the point of destroying its capacity for future abundance. It is worth asking yourself which requirement is most relevant to the business each of us works in.
However, work was spoiled by the Fall and, alongside the good of work, we also experience frustration and selfishness, ugliness and injustice in our work as a result. Indeed we can find ourselves – despite good intentions – building empires which are quite alien, even antagonistic, to God’s purpose.
This is what Brueghel illustrates in his painting of the Tower of Babel.
Is it possible that one of these builders is a hard worker who – unlike his colleagues – works solidly from clocking on to clocking off? Perhaps he spent last evening leading a house group? And this morning he spent an hour studying scripture and praying; only to spend the greater part of his day building, not for God, but against Him.
We need to establish what impact our work is having on people as individuals and communities – whether customers, staff of suppliers – and on our planet. Is this impact universally positive? What would Jesus say about it?
Quite apart from the fundamental purposes being corrupted with the Fall, there came also a rupture in our willingness to share fairly the labour of work, and the fruits of that labour. The human condition is now one in which we tend to prioritise for ourselves and our own family or business the fruits of work; and similarly we tend to leave for others the tidying up of our own mess.
However, just as God desires to renew creation so He desires – not that work should stop in an endless holiday – to renew our work.
How should Christians approach their work, in the light both of the fundamental good which God desires that we find in it, and the selfishness and frustration which attends work after the Fall? What are our proper priorities?
Jesus analysed human priorities in the Sermon on the Mount. In the second half of Matthew 6, he talks about our desire for wealth, our need for clothing and food, and our tendency to worry about providing for our own needs. His instruction was stark and challenging:
“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and your other needs will be provided for as well” Matthew 6:33.
God’s kingdom comes where his fallen creation is restored to his rule – his rule of the rich but unworked earth; his transparent justice which precludes greed; his kingdom of restored relationships and glorious beauty which subdues the earth to make it productive, and cares for the earth to ensure abundant and sustainable production into the future. God’s righteousness is his quality of right living in delight and obedience, humility and service, which rejects the rebellion of the Fall and the injustice and greed and ugliness which is its legacy.
This is the kingdom and the righteousness which we are called to seek as our first priority. This is the kingdom rule to which those who come to Christ choose to submit and to work for; this is the kingdom which will be extended unreservedly throughout the earthly realm when He returns in power and glory to judge us and our work, and to eliminate sin and establish finally his ownership and leadership.
Paul describes judgement as like purifying metal in a smelting process in which the dross gets burned or removed. If our work is like straw, then it will not survive, though we shall escape “as if through flames”. But work which reflects the trust, values and priorities of God’s kingdom will survive and be perfected and transformed for service in the kingdom.
This is what St Paul meant when, in 1 Cor. 15, at the end of a 58-verse chapter on resurrection, he returns surprisingly to the subject of work and he says: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that all your labour in the Lord is not in vain” – (1 Cor 15:58). How often has this text been spiritualised into the church’s work against the world’s work? No, the context is our earthly struggle until death, and God’s transformation and resurrection. Our work will be a struggle, but the struggle will prove not to be in vain if it is transformed into a part of God’s kingdom.
This brings purpose to our work. Work for the kingdom will be transformed to become part of the kingdom. This brings meaning to our toil and hope in our frustration. Your work may be toilsome and frustrating – but it need not be in vain!
Work in Business
I come now to work in business. I want to be more specific about the impacts of the Fall in our business lives, and to offer a vision of what kingdom service might look like.
What are some of the impacts of the Fall in business? Firstly, I notice in myself a frustration at the narrow objectives which many businesses have set me, and the poor measurement of my performance in them. In my experience, measured performance omits a good deal which should be measured but which is hard to measure. As a result, I’ve often felt very flat both when I’m given targets and when my performance is assessed against them.
A second impact of the Fall is the ugliness, which is the only word I can use to describe some outcomes of our work. For the last 8 years, I have worked in the construction industry, and I am very aware that many of the buildings which our industry produces have to be acknowledged to be exceedingly dull. I’m sure some of the behaviour which is exhibited in the worst housing estates is attributable to the monotonous environments we have created. Another example of ugliness is disclosed by an aspect of our businesses we rarely examine – the waste which we produce in enormous quantities, and which we demand is whisked quickly out of our sight. We don’t take our visitors to see the Yorkshire tips, but the Yorkshire Dales! Why is it that we tend to prefer the work of nature to the work of man?
A third impact of the Fall at work is injustice – for example the extraordinary poverty of many workers. Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day; yet even this statistic fails to capture the humiliation, powerlessness and brutal hardship that is the daily lot of the world’s poor. And we might think that the natural cycle of economics means that differentials will narrow over time – but they don’t: income differentials are widening. The “trickle down” effect is wishful thinking.
The great thing about business – our immense privilege as business folk – is that business isn’t a zero sum game. It is possible to meet the needs of our employers for profit, and our customers for service – and to address other needs as well. It is possible to serve God in serving our businesses.
This simple truth that the market is not a zero sum game presents business with its great opportunity to create true wealth for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to “seek first the Kingdom of God” in business.
Applying this truth isn’t easy. Most people in market economies are happy to let those who can, take the market risks and reap its rewards. But I don’t think this is good enough for the Christian who seeks first God’s kingdom. Both Old and New Testaments reveal a God who requires His people to be holy in our devotion to Him and His service – and just in our dealings with each other. This requirement doesn’t cease when we go to work. If our freedom to be holy and just in our particular workplace may be curtailed from time to time, this is a matter for sorrow and for seeking a better way; not for exoneration and the abandonment of God’s requirements.
I suggest there are two applications of God’s justice in our day, for which people in business should take active responsibility.
The first is trade justice – the problem of highly unequal access to global markets of the developed and developing worlds, which results in our highly differentiated and widening standards of living. This should be a matter of the deepest shame to all who follow Christ, as it certainly is to many who don’t. Fair trade is simply a matter of justice, business folk should support it actively, and organisations like Traidcraft are a beacon to us all.
The second is less well known as a justice issue, but touches me very deeply. Climate change for most westerners is a matter of needing more air conditioning in our offices in summer and of hearing news of occasional floods in Yorkshire, Gloucester or New Orleans. It is a modest nuisance.
But if you live in the flood plains of Bangladesh, in parts of the Caribbean or on one of 100’s of low lying islands in the Pacific, the view is very different. Climate change means more frequent, and worse, storms, and continuous, permanent rises in sea level, which gradually – but directly and predictably – result in the loss of all your land and therefore your home and livelihood. Or in other parts of the world, like Ethiopia, it means near permanent drought, mitigated only by floods. The cause of the change is now very widely accepted to be human emissions of greenhouse gases, and it is the wealthy in the developed world who pollute most and suffer least. Are Africans and Asians our neighbours? Are your grandchildren, who will suffer the negative impact of my emissions, my neighbours? I think they are. When Jesus says to us “What you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did to me” – what will you say?
Let me apply this to our family business, NG Bailey. The biggest part of it is the design and installation of heating, cooling, lighting and electrical power systems for buildings. These are the systems which are both essential for productive occupation AND the cause of carbon emissions which damage our planet. Seeking first God’s righteousness surely puts a heavy business demand upon me.
The result of taking justice seriously is that Christians face imperatives at work which for our colleagues are simply strategic options. Our challenge is to find means of speaking persuasively to our colleagues in language they will understand, with proposals they will be willing to support – and that is not an easy thing to do.
Examples of Kingdom Businesses
Does this consign a Christian to be no more than a thorn in the flesh of a business enterprise? Or can we make a valuable, profitable and even unique contribution to our companies?
There are some wonderful examples of businesses which understand that business isn’t a zero sum game, and have set themselves the goals of being fruitful both in terms of profit and in terms of service to the world, in a manner which seems to me to further God’s kingdom. What can be achieved by business people with a noble vision and great determination?
Think back 150 years: suppose you lived in Dublin in the 19th century potato famine and saw the ruin caused by gin addiction. What might you have done?
You may have started a brewery to produce a less addictive, less costly and more nutritious alternative drink. This is what a young man called Guinness did – and he made a huge contribution to the alleviation of poverty as well as developing a fine business for many generations of staff and shareholders.
What about today? Maybe you work in retail, and are appalled by the tragedy and injustice of third world poverty. Might you be able to create opportunities for sourcing goods from 3rd world suppliers whose economic development you could thereby promote? This is the calling for Paul, a friend who runs a mail order business which has led the supply of fairtrade produce in the UK.
Perhaps you’re in the world of manufacturing. Ray Anderson is the recently retired Chief Executive of the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer, called Interface Inc. Ray tells the story of how he realised in the 1990’s that while his business was highly successful in conventional terms – market share, profits, share price – there was a huge amount of carpet manufacturing waste, which was filling up the rubbish dumps near his manufacturing plants. As he researched the issue, he learned how many hundred years it would take for this waste to decompose; and how the oil which was his main raw material was irreplaceable. He was deeply shocked by what he discovered, he wept, and decided to stop “plundering the earth” – his words. So he launched his 2020 vision – that by 2020 his business would have a zero impact on the environment, by reducing its waste, recycling what was left and recovering old carpet tiles from customers so that his product, both before and after it was sold, left no legacy of pollution for future generations. He struggled for some years to bring shareholders and staff with him, but has now won them over. Incidentally, his strategy sharply reduced his business’ costs, which enabled it to weather the 2002 downturn better than its competitors. Interface is now well on the way to its 2020 goal, and is a world leader whom many have followed.
Or suppose you work, like me, in construction, and are disgusted by the quantity of builder’s waste you send to the local tip. The building industry currently buys materials for 7 houses, but builds only 6 – the rest is over-bought or damaged, and is scrapped. Could your calling be to manage the ordering process to avoid over-buying, to improve site processes in order to reduce waste on your projects, to recycle what’s left and eliminate waste to land fill in your company by 2010 – so saving your company a lot of money, motivating staff and improving our environment. This is the calling for Rachel, who works for a major builder – a customer of ours – and has gained the support of her directors to work fulltime doing this, because it will save so much money.
Perhaps, after persistent trying, we find that we cannot persuade our colleagues or employers where we work to change to a kingdom way of working. Is it time to shake the dust off our feet and move to another place of work where our new colleagues may heed a call to build a better empire? Or maybe we need to start our own business with like-minded colleagues?
The story of Grameen Bank is an example of this. Its founder is a man called Yunus who approached several mainstream banks to ask their help in launching a new form of finance aimed at enabling the poor in Bangladesh to purchase animals, sewing machines and other tools to enable them to work. This proposal had the potential to open up substantial new credit markets to these banks, but the absence of good security was a drawback. The banks universally rejected him. So he experimented with a loan of $27 from his own pocket in 1974. Grameen Bank has since lent $7Bn in microcredit to the poorest people in the world. It has a repayment rate of 98% despite the complete absence of collateral – considerably higher than the average of AAA-rated western banks who today have serious bad debt. Yunus has enabled no less than 7.5 million of the poorest people in Bangladesh to find dignity and income through work. He has developed a highly successful banking model developing new banking markets, which is now being copied in over 100 countries, including the US; he has also made money for his shareholders. In 2006, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In summary, I contend that God’s will is for his original creation plan, which we now call his kingdom, to be realised in the earthly realm. “Thy kingdom come … on earth”, we say when we pray. Seeking first His kingdom means that our priority at work is to bring about this kingdom by diligent, humble, wealth-creating, justice-seeking service: this can render great wealth to our employers, to our customers, and to our neighbours – and so also to God.
In conclusion, then, if we liken our work to building an empire, we need to ask ourselves “Whose empire are we building?”
A talk in 2 parts by Mark Greene on bringing Christian values into our daily word.
1. Is there a relationship between values and business performance, as measured by profit and employee satisfaction.
2. Do Christian values have anything distinctive to contribute to business performance, as measured by profit and employee satisfaction.
Getting Values to Work – Listen here
Now is our moment.
Now. Not in ten years time, not in twenty years time. But now. The West in all its glitzy self-confidence is imploding before our very eyes. And this represents a fantastic opportunity for the Gospel.
It is not bin Laden who has rocked Western confidence. On the whole, bin Laden has done the opposite – he has made us more self-righteous, more certain that Western democracy is the one true path. No, even though much of the world thinks that the West is materialistic, morally bankrupt and sexually depraved, we, on the whole, do not have ears to hear the criticism, nor hearts attuned to the misery we inflict, never mind an inclination to alleviate the misery that, yes, some national leaders inflict on their own people. It is misery nevertheless. And none of the G8 nations is giving the level of international aid that they promised.
No, the West is in trouble not because of any external threat. The West is in trouble because there is a vacuum at its core. The West is now beginning to reap the whirlwind of its flight from God, and its disdain for the very idea of truth.
Few events illustrate the bitter fruit of that disdain for absolute truth better than the circumstances surrounding the collapse of Enron and WorldCom. What is startling is not that two very large companies could be run in such an appalling way; what is startling is not the internal culture of Enron which bred fear and greed in gargantuan proportions; what is startling is not that some highly placed individuals were lying. No, what is startling is that their auditors behaved with such dishonesty. Auditors have only one thing to sell: their honesty. Without honesty, they are out of business. As Andersens, Enron’s auditors, may well soon be.
How then could a business that trades in honesty so easily forfeit its key asset? Presumably because there was no deeply felt personal commitment to honesty. Indeed, for decades, business schools didn’t even have ethics courses. That might not have mattered when everyone shared the basic view that truth existed, and that lying was wrong, but it matters very much when people have been educated not to believe in the possibility of ‘truth’, and when lying is increasingly perceived to be bad only if you get caught.
Business needs Trust
A while back, the University of Westminster conducted a survey among UK Board Directors, and discovered the saddening, but not surprising, discovery that the majority of Board Directors said that they would do something unethical if they thought they could get away with it. They had no inner conviction about right or wrong; they were simply concerned with managing risk. Truthfulness does not matter. What matters is results. Now this may work for some individuals for some of the time, but it doesn’t work for business as a whole, and it certainly doesn’t work for big business. Here’s why: big business needs investors. And investors make judgments about their investment decisions on the basis of audited accounts. If you can’t trust the numbers, you have no basis for making an investment – you might as well buy a lottery ticket. And if people don’t invest, business can’t invest, and won’t expand.
Although some individual businesses can thrive with dishonest policies, business as a whole cannot. And nor can societies. Trust is the basic building block of all relationships. And trust is in very short supply. And this explains why President Bush is so worried by the collapse of those businesses, and why he has pushed through much tighter legislation.
So what is the connection between the decline in truthfulness and the flight from God? And why is this such an opportunity for the Gospel?
The Theory: Part 1
When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe anything.
Look around. People are not uninterested in ‘spirituality,’ in the transcendent, in the occult, in magic, in crystals and hugging trees, and a host of new age variations on old Eastern themes. No, people will believe anything. Including the insight that “Life has enough embarrassing moments,” so “don’t let your mobile be one of them.” Imagine that: your reputation in tatters because your mobile is the wrong model. Happiness used to be a cigar called Hamlet; now it’s a mobile called Nokia 8310.
The Theory: Part 2
When people stop believing in absolute truth, societies have no legitimate basis for ethical decision-making, and people become less truthful.
Well, look at Britain. As we have moved away from our Judeo-Christian heritage, as we have rejected as a culture the idea that there might be one way, one truth and one life, so too we have seen an astonishing decline in trust in our major institutions, in our leaders, in our employers and indeed in one another.
At the same time, we have seen a huge rise in the pressure to lie and to spin. And the more you lie, the easier it is to lie. As Paul makes clear in Romans, the first step on the road to moral degradation is the suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18ff), and the progressive suppression of the truth leads to the progressive dulling of the conscience. The results are clear: the wages of spin is the death of trust. And without trust, relationships, businesses, societies just don’t work.
Now, liberal moral philosophers have been running around for a century trying to construct a set of ethical principles, without reference to absolute truth. Which is like trying to construct a skyscraper without foundations. It can’t be done. Because if there is no agreed starting point which underpins your ethical framework, you are simply constructing one individual person’s view of a moral framework. And who is to say that it is better or worse than the next person’s? How can it be criticised? Without some external point of reference, it can’t be. As Annie Lenox sang in ‘Sweet Dreams’, “Who am I to disagree?” So truth becomes relative. Here’s my truth, show me yours. It’s true for you. But not for me. Which of course is illogical. The cup is either empty or it isn’t. Jesus either died on the Cross or he didn’t. And when there is no truth, there is no basis for morality. As Rowling’s Voldemort put it, “There is no good or evil, only power.”
Now the problem for the atheists and the agnostics and the liberals about the current decline in trust and truthfulness in Western democracy is that the Western human beings are not flourishing as a result of the flight from God and the disdain for truth – they are increasingly alienated, isolated, depressed and weary. Furthermore, Western society as a whole has now reached a point where it desperately needs a shared ethical framework. However, the atheists, agnostics and liberals have failed to provide one.
If you get rid of God, you shatter truth, and trust crumbles. And when trust crumbles, capitalism doesn’t work. So here’s a surprise: capitalism needs God. Thankfully, God doesn’t need capitalism, though he may well be prepared to work with it.
The Time is Now
So, why is ‘now’ a great time for the Gospel?
Because when a culture cannot answer its own questions, it is much more likely to be open to alternatives. The West has for decades basked in self-satisfied, self-confidence. Never mind the social data, just look at the economy: capitalism works. We don’t need God. But now the West is beginning to realise that without a God of truth, the economy may not work, Capitalism will founder. As Charles Coulson puts it:
“The lesson of history is that capitalism (or any other economic system, for that matter) is only beneficent when it is subject to moral restraints derived ultimately form religious truth.”
The West needs a God of truth.
Furthermore, Western liberals promised that kicking God out of the public arena would not only deliver prosperity, but happiness. It hasn’t. The yearning for something more remains. This is the opportunity. Paul recognised a similar opportunity as he walked round Athens:
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” Acts 17: 23.
Paul’s close observation of Athenian culture recognised that, despite all the gods the Athenians had, there was something missing. And that yearning for something else was expressed in the altar to the unknown god, the god who had, according to their own history, rescued them when no other could. This was Paul’s opportunity. He saw the culture’s dissatisfaction with itself, the need it could not satisfy, the truth that had escaped it. And he demonstrated that the Gospel of the resurrected Christ was indeed the answer to that need.
It is not just Enron that is bankrupt. So is Western liberalism. It can still put on a good show, but the writing is on the Wall Street TV monitors.
They don’t have the answer.
The Church has got to recover confidence in our God as the Creator, the One who knows best what His world needs. God is truth. And although we must recognise that many contemporary people are suspicious of anyone who claims to know the truth, that should only make us think carefully about how we make our case. It shouldn’t deter us from living it and arguing it. Christ is the cornerstone, and you can’t build a healthy society without Him.
And now is the time to proclaim it.
“Capitalism needs God. Though, thankfully God doesn’t need capitalism.”
“The wages of spin is the death of trust.”
Curt Hopkins, former senior Nortel and Vodafone Executive and now CEO of a technology investment firm, finds pleasure in Alain de Boton’s observations, but sorrow in his conclusions.
Alain de Botton, Swiss philosopher, writer and television presenter, whose most recent position was as Heathrow Airport’s writer in residence, addresses work’s most vexing questions in a visual, approachable and authentic way. But a three point self-help book on how to survive the modern workplace, this isn’t.
In the style of a travel writer, de Botton tosses in philosophical zingers and uniquely humorous episodes as he incisively explores a variety of different real-life workplaces in all their beauty and horror – from cargo ship spotting, to biscuit manufacturing, to accountancy. de Botton is on a quest for meaning, and indeed many of us are trying to find meaning at work. de Botton assures us that the modern workplace is potentially “able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.” Unfortunately, he has little to offer, and ends up mired in a cul-de-sac of hopelessness.
Does the beastliness of industrial workplaces bring out the beastliness in man? As de Botton surveys the “soulless, immaculate beauty characteristic of many of the workplaces of the modern world,” he wrestles with the impact that such environments make upon our well-being. More positively, he tries to understand the infrastructure and logistics that keep our supermarket shelves full. But in the end, he believes that the alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evening are “predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration” of having to work on bleak industrial estates.
Is there meaning in tasks/crafts that bring little noticeable benefit to mankind? The Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, theorised that society would increase in wealth as people eschewed general knowledge and focused on narrow fields of expertise. de Botton dives into Pareto’s theory through an excruciating tour at United Biscuits. He notes that “an endeavour endowed with meaning may appear meaningful only when workers can make an imaginative connection between what they have done with their working days and their impact upon others…people whose labour can be easily linked to the visible betterment of human life.”
He therefore clearly assumes that some jobs are more meaningful than others, which may not be the case if one has a sense of calling to even a menial task. Can a worker in a biscuit factory discover meaning in his work, even if it is only inspecting row after row of cookies for defects? Is it possible for him to take pride in his work and dedication to quality? Is it feasible for him to find meaning in the relationships that he builds at his workplace? God’s calling to a vocation does not exclude the mundane. The command to be salt and light must surely apply to a biscuit manufacturing as well.
Moving on, he rightly points out that the pursuit of narrow interests and task achievement can lead to forgetting that putting relationships first is a foundation for our society (shameless plug for Mark Greene’s new book Best Idea in the World). Task orientation leads to a corporate self-referential view of life. de Botton notes that “many of the proceedings at United Biscuits had to them an air of gravity akin to that of an airport control tower… Perhaps for this reason, I was to encounter no jokes at any biscuit’s expense.” One only needs to watch the unbelievable deification of the new iPad by Apple executives here to see how something as trivial as the launch of a new computer-cum-phone carries the feel of a Pentecostal revival.
Interestingly, de Botton, a Swiss and no doubt keenly aware of Calvin and Geneva’s role in the development of the Western understanding of work, points out that “the Protestant worldview as it developed over the sixteenth century attempted to redeem the value of everyday tasks.” This draws attention away from what one does in favour of how one does it. It suggests that “there might be a continuity, rather than an insurmountable barrier, between work at the top and bottom of the ladder of meaning – and that many of the talents exercised in the most exalted tasks were no less likely to be found” in much more menial tasks. The author realises that meaning derived from work can be achieved through the work itself, and not just only if the work has an inherent positive social impact. God can be glorified by professionalism, and by taking pride in one’s craft.
Has the concept of a vocational calling left a trail of destruction in our society? de Botton spent time with a career coach and this caused him to consider the secularised concept of calling where the coach’s clients were “tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed their true ‘calling’.” As Maslow wrote, “it isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
As only he can put it, de Botton left the company of the career coach “newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes…will weigh down on us like particular curses…the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our…unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
Does the awesomeness of scientific and technological advancement bring more meaning and beauty than art? At a launch of an Ariane rocket in French Guiana, de Botton is so dazzled by the technical gadgetry, scientific ingenuity and earth shaking awfulness of it all that he seemed to have a religious experience. “Living with science without understanding it forced one to consider machines in the same quasi-mystical way in which a sparsely-clothed Waiwai might have contemplated the phenomena of the heavens.”
Alain de Botton seems to be a post-modernist trying to find his way in an industrialised, modernist world. He says that he was awkward “having to look up to rocket engineers and technicians as our ancestors might once have venerated their gods…We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of veneration that our brilliant, precise, blinkered and morally troubling fellow human beings.”
Therefore, when de Botton observes a painter who was spending two years in East Anglia repeatedly painting the same oak tree in different climatic conditions, he seems to find more comfort in this pursuit of beauty than through technological might.
Are large multinationals the opiate of the masses? Perhaps the most amusing workplace that de Botton studied was Ernst & Young’s European headquarters near Tower Bridge. Maybe it was humorous because I have recently been released from the mind-numbing, self-referential environment of a large multinational. In a subject near to my heart, de Botton takes aim at human resources departments by noting that “for most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip…The jobs in the world’s glass office towers cannot be administered by the fear of an external power. Wrapping the iron first of authority in its velvet glove is the … human resources department” where very “contrived strategies” are guaranteed success only by their very artificiality. “Like guests at a house party who at first mock their host’s suggestion of a round of Pictionary, they may be surprised to find themselves, as the game gets under way, able thereby to channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter.”
But even more so, he takes his aim at the hapless Chairman of the firm, who sees his interview “not as a chance to impart useful information but as a perilous test of his ability to avoid saying anything which might return to haunt him – in other words, to be as boring as possible… After twenty minutes of this, I am tempted to ask when he was last troubled by his bowels in a meeting. But perhaps he speaks like this not so much because he wishes to keep secrets as because years of circumnavigating the earth, breathing conditioned air and headlining conferences, have hollowed out his personality. It may have been a decade since he was left alone in a room with nothing to do. I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for.” In these short statements, de Botton sums up the personality-reducing qualities of large multinationals, and why they are the scourge of human happiness.
As de Botton follows a senior director home from work, he comments that the E&Y partner “feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is of course impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time, but also a clear emotional lawn around the text in which associations and anxieties could emerge and be disentangled… For this particular combination of tiredness and nervous energy, the sole workable solution is wine. Office civilisation could not be feasible with the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.”
Truly, these workplaces are the opiate of the masses. And so de Botton so accurately summarises the emptiness and depravity of multinational careers that blemish the landscape of many lives.
Is the workplace a comfort blanket to distract us from the realities of life such as approaching death? In a jumbo jet graveyard in a desert in California, de Botton reflects on death (and work). “Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done. Work does not by its nature permit us to take death too seriously. We should be grateful to work…for letting us wear the thought of our own death and the destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness…We function on the basis of necessary myopia.”
So, is one of the purposes of work to fog over the reality of death? Is it meant to just dull our senses to life’s greater meanings? This brutally honest view betrays the despair of de Botton’s world view and shows that in the end, the post-modern view of the modernist workplace arrives in the same place of desolation.
Summing up, de Botton provides an entertaining rebuke to those of us who have been seduced by the allure of the workplace, instead of being captivated by the knowledge of our God and the deepening relationships that we have with all of those around us who were created in the image of God.
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