I had more time to think about the Pew research study on religion than most people. One of their pollsters phoned me when I was home sick, and since I had nothing better to do, answered what seemed like an hour of questions about my past religious activities, and my beliefs today. What I didn’t know then was that millions of other Americans made the same transition I had just described to the researcher: I left the religion of my childhood.
Like many, what I transitioned to wasn’t religion, it was to a workplace community.
As a child, I pitied people without religion in their lives, thinking they must be empty. Ironically, all those years later, I was sick with a cold because I had pushed myself too hard finishing last-minute edits on a book about workplace communities. After doing research on 24,000 people with my colleagues John King and Halee Fischer-Wright, we had come to a conclusion that still rocks our world: today, people many find their spiritual expression at work, but only if they’re lucky enough to work in a great company.
My memories of going to church are mostly about the community that formed there. We didn’t talk about the sermon—we talked about our lives, filtered through the prism of values that bound us together. There were funny people, mixed together with zealots, down-on-their luck folk, people with new families and empty-nesters. It was what I and my colleagues came to term a tribe.
Today, my life still has community based on values, and strong tribes, but none involve religion. There is a tribe of professors of students and the university where I teach, all aligned on the values of learning and growth. There is the tribe of consultants and clients in the business where I work, all focused on the values of effectiveness and creativity. As a consultant, I have visitor status in a number of tribes, in financial services, commercial real estate, and high technology. Most of those are also vibrant tribes, focused on values like family, success, and even love.
75% of business workplaces have cultures that weren’t like what I experienced as a kid going to church, that don’t see themselves as tribes. No shared values, no strong feeling of being a community. Instead, 2% resemble gangs and prisons, with a mood of despairing hostility, what we call Stage One cultures. What we call Stage Two is the 25% of cultures that resemble the Department of Motor Vehicles, where people do the minimum to not get fired or hassled. Stage Three is the 48% of workplaces that resemble the wild, wild west with people having to be the sharpest draw, or in modern parlance, the smartest person in the room; the compete with each other from dawn to dusk, and the measure of a good day is when they came out on top.
The remaining 25% of U.S. workplaces—Stages Four and Five–see themselves as tribes, where care of tribal members, and for the tribe itself, is the key to competing on the business front. These top performing workplaces are also fun, exciting and nurturing.
To be clear, religion and spirituality don’t come up much in workplace conversations that we studied. People don’t talk about doctrine, metaphysical beliefs, or what happens after death and what is the nature of God. For me, there is a void on those subjects. But the questions of how we should live, what we want our lives to stand for, the people we care for, are increasingly answered at work. Even more to the point, who we are at our deepest core—our values—finds its way into competitive advantage for those companies wise enough to tap its power. When values unite a group, at church or work, you get a Stage Four tribe.
In reading the Pew study, I realized that I’m one of the lucky ones: when my own religion no longer worked for me, I found a new set of tribes: cultures at Stage Four.
There are many good reasons why corporate leaders need to pay attention to workplace cultures, not the least of which is that great tribes outperform dysfunctional groups, create wealth for shareholders, and better products and services for customers. We can now add another reason to the list of why culture matters: workplaces are becoming places of spiritual expression.