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A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

Working With A Sense of the Whole

by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"Working With A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

A few years ago I received a research grant to study the ingredients of healthy community. (The grant was awarded in 1981 by The Tides Foundation, and administered by TheSan Francisco Foundation.) I spent a year travelling through the United States andCanada, immersing myself in the lives of 30 cooperative business organizations which had a strong commitment to the spirit of community. These groups were chosen because of their stated commitment to bringing forth a new paradigm for work -- one which emphasized participative decision-making and spiritual values like compassion, caring and the power of shared commitment.

The purposes of this research were: (1) to observe how these businesses were embodying community principles; and (2) to report my findings to mainstream communities and organizations. The study resulted in my book, EarthCommunity: Living Experiments in Cultural Transformation (available by writing to Susan Campbell).

While each organization/community differed in its specific business purpose, all of the groups in my study had similar ideas about what makes a community healthy and about what the new business-as-community paradigm looks like.

Everywhere I traveled, I saw people living and working with a sense of the whole in mind. This sense of the whole was exemplified by four essential values:

These four values promote a shared experience of belonging and contributing to something larger than oneself. This is the essence of community. When this we-feeling is present, people can accomplish amazing things. The feelings of trust and support that come from this community sense creates a profound synergy.

The businesses that showed the highest levels of morale and productivity were those who not only espoused these values, but lived them as well. Doing so seemed to infuse members' spirits with a sense of meaning and vitality far beyond what we might expect from simply loving one's work.



All of the groups I visited were engaged in some form of collective economic enterprise. Each worker was part owner of the business and part worker. In some cases, the shared ownership was financial. In other cases, ownership was conferred through the fact that the community owned and ran the business, so if you belonged to the community, you felt responsible for the success of the business. The spirit of shared ownership was felt by everyone, young and old. This led people to put forth more effort with more enthusiasm than had been true in their former occupations. Quoting from one of my research participants, "I feel like I'm working to support not just myself but everyone in the community. And I feel like I have their support also. If I do a good job, everyone benefits, so we all care about helping one another do better.But not in a 'supervisory' way. It's a real caring about doing our best and helping others do the same."

This man's disclosure reveals the incredible value added from a sense of cooperation. It illustrates the heightened sense of significance that people feel when they are part of a group effort.


Sharing Mundane Tasks

The typical distinctions between management and labor did not exist in the shared ownership organizations/communities. There was a core leadership team of two to five people in every group, but these leaders could often be seen pitching in on the most mundane of tasks. The group's leader would of course have different duties and responsibilities than those who mainly worked in the kitchen, but leaders did not limit their activities to management tasks. Most groups had a system of rotating the less desirable duties among all members.

I recall visiting one well known community founded by a world renowned author, someone whose work I had admired for many years before he became a the leader of this group. At the hour of our appointed meeting, as I entered the main cafeteria where our interview was to take place, I found him vacuuming the floors contentedly. "Let's have the first part of our meeting here while I finish up my chores", he suggested. I followed him around, notebook in hand, for an hour as he vacuumed and dusted and gave me a tour of the building at one and the same time. Instead of apologizing for his preoccupation, he seemed proud of it. He told me he liked "getting out of his head, away from his desk,and into another role."


Shared Leadership

Another aspect of shared ownership is shared leadership responsibility. The essential leadership task in any community is this: to empower more and more people to share in getting the job done, to feel responsible for getting it done, to cooperate in getting it done, and to find ways of using every single member's talents in getting it done. Empowerment is the essential leadership task of the new workplace. This requires a sophisticated level of people skills.

The groups I studied were structured for empowerment. There was a high value on giving community members opportunities to assume increasing responsibility. For example, the role of meeting facilitator for staff meetings would often be rotated to a different person each week instead of having the same person perform this function each time. Similar to this was another ritual that I saw in several communities -- the ritual of leaving ten or fifteen minutes at the end of each meeting for "group self-reflection." During this part of the meeting, participants would ask themselves such questions as:

  • How do we feel about this meeting -- pleased or disappointed, energized or depleted, more cohesive or more divided?
  • How well did we stay on purpose?
  • How do I feel about my own participation in the meeting?
  • How well did we use and respect each person's contribution?
  • Are we leaving the meeting with any ill feelings that might decrease our effectiveness?
  • What and whom do we appreciate?

Reflecting together on these questions at the end of every meeting gave participants a sense that others cared about their feelings and observations and that they could influence the course of future meetings. It was also an excellent vehicle for learning together how to make their meetings more effective.


Decision Making

Like mainstream organizations, different communities had evolved different decision making structures -- some centralized and some more decentralized. The more centralized, leader-centered, structures were generally more efficient in terms of getting agreement more quickly. The less centralized, more consensus-based, groups took longer to reach agreement. But one thing surprised me: I expected that the more centralized, hierarchical structures would lead people to feel less empowered or responsible for carrying out the decisions. What I observed was that the people who did not participate as directly in all decisions felt just as committed as those who did.

Perhaps because the business enterprise was felt to be "owned by the community of which I am a part," people did not feel deprived of power even when they were not included in the decision making loop. Another factor that contributed to everyone's buying in to the decisions was the fact that communication flowed freely throughout the community. There were no "closed doors" or inaccessible people or information.

Where decision making was concerned, there was only one rule: if the decision affects you significantly, then you should have the chance to be included in the communication loop about this decision.


Letting Go of Control

As I observe my mainstream corporate clients, one of the biggest impediments to community ownership and empowerment seems to be the fear of letting go ofcontrol. Business owners and leaders have traditionally been seen as the only ones who really care about the bottom line -- because it's their business. But consider the possibility that everyone in the organization might really care about the financial success of the business. If we believe this tobe possible, and it appears to be so from the evidence here, we can then create ways to structure our collective efforts so that everyone feels that his or her talents and input are vitally needed.

The old "boss-employee" contract is no longer effective because companies need so much more from employees than we did in the past. We need them to be willing to constantly change and grow to make themselves more effective on the job. We need them to risk personal criticism in order to inform their leaders about what is really going on in the marketplace. And we need them to work upto their fullest capacity, giving their jobs the very best that they have. The only way to get this level of commitment is to give people a piece of the action.



People need to feel they are doing work that meaningfully contributes to "the good of the whole" in order to feel fulfilled. Those organizations where people seemed to feel enhanced rather than depleted by a day's work had all made this principle of "right livelihood" an important part of their vision.

In these groups, I saw people taking an active, creative stance toward their work rather than the passive, reactive stance I often see in businesses where people feel exploited or demeaned by what they do.

E.F. Schumacher, in his book, Good Work, elucidates this concept of Right Livelihood, one of the steps in the "Eightfold Path" to enlightenment according to Buddhist tradition. In this view, one's way of supporting oneself can be considered Right Livelihood if it provides the following:

  • it gives you a chance to develop your abilities;
  • it enables you to overcome ego-centeredness by joining with others in a commontask;
  • it brings forth goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

This concept of work is echoed in the philosophy of Indian economist J. C.Kumarappa:

"If the nature of work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man/woman and urges him/her to produce the best he/she is capable of." (p. 69)


Re-framing the Purpose of Work

In the groups I studied, the community's economic philosophy fulfilled these provisions. As a result, the people I met felt nourished by their work.Watching how long and hard everyone worked, I asked a member of one California community, "Does anyone ever get burned out on work? You all seem to go at it with such vigor!" To this, he replied, "Sometimes we get tired, but never burned out. Burn out occurs when you're in some sort of conflict about what you're doing. We are totally committed to the work we do, body and spirit, so there's never that little voice inside asking, 'What am I doing here?'"

These people seemed to enjoy their work as much as they enjoyed their leisure time. Unlike their former experiences with work in mainstream companies, work was not experienced as exploitative because profits were not considered more important than people. Creative activity was given priority over consumption. People were encouraged to be innovative, to express themselves in their work, rather than conforming to prescribed ways of doing things. Emphasis was on the worker, the work process and the meaningfulness of the work.

&quo;tWe feel meaningful work is a basic human need,&quo;t asserted one community member. "We operate on the principle that people need work not only for income, but for self-expression, self-discipline, and a sense of participation." This woman's comments show the ideal of Right Livelihood in practice.

By re-framing the meaning of work, emphasizing its importance as a vehicle for self-mastery and social significance, the groups I visited helped people see work as a privilege rather than an obligation. This brought forth the type of commitment from workers that all organizations need in these times of uncertainty.


Making Learning and Meaning as Important as Profits

Most mainstream businesses do not inspire such trust and commitment. From my talks with both CEO's and employees, I observe that the trust gap is getting wider. Companies need to strike a new deal with workers -- a contract which honors employees' needs for self-expression and social significance, not just because this is the right thing to do but also because this brings out the best that people have to offer. It fosters an ethic of continual self-improvement -- something which today's "learning organization" cannot function without. How can the organization continually learn and adapt to rapidly changing market conditions unless workers themselves are continually learning and adapting?

Re-framing the meaning of work along these lines represents a profound culture change for most organizations. If we hope to do this, we must, of course, take steps to make sure our vision is aligned with real human and environmental needs. We must also design the work process with human learning in mind. Then we must show workers by our actions that their learning is as important as their output.

This will take some effort, but most organizations already have the necessary feedback mechanisms in place for gathering information from workers on what they need for their learning and what would give their jobs meaning and significance. The employment interview, the performance review interview, the job assignment process, various employee surveys, and informal conversations about how people are doing -- these sorts of vehicles can be used to assess how well we are doing in helping workers feel a sense of &quo;tright livelihood." When workers feel included and cared about in this way, commitment to company goals is the natural result.



A sustainable way of life is one which recognizes that the Earth's resources are finite (food, water, air, minerals) and that there are limits tothe growth of all living systems. These limits are finally dictated by the finite size of the Earth and the finite input of energy from the sun. We humans need to attend to how much traffic the Earth can bear and still nourish a quality of life fitting for continued human unfoldment.

Most people, deep inside of them, know the difference between a sustainable way of life and one which is based on short term thinking or over-consumption. When our lifestyles are aligned with principles of sustainability, we feel more secure and self-respecting. When they are not, we often feel vaguely uneasy.


Aligning Organizational Goals with Planetary Needs

For many years I have conducted public seminars in which managers from a variety of mainstream organizations spend one or two weeks in a retreat setting developing communication and leadership skills. People get to know one another on an intimate level in these workshops. As people let down their hair, those who work for corporations whose purpose feels to them to be unsustainable often confess the following feelings: "I hate that I have to work for a company that.............(pollutes the environment, makes nuclear weapons, etc.). But that's the only way I know how to support my family."

These managers feel conflicted about being in a position where the way they make their living damages their self respect. It is easy to understand their feelings of shame, confusion, ambivalence, and anger. As a result, their pride of workmanship is practically nonexistent. Working only for a pay check, in a way that does not support the good of the whole, is emotionally draining and spiritually debilitating. An organization does not earn a worker's commitment under these conditions.

Contrast this with the fact that in those communities who practiced ecological sustainability, I saw people working enthusiastically from dawn till dusk without getting tired.

Business organizations are just beginning to consider how their purposes can support human evolution and planetary well-being. We are starting to recognize that work is not just an economic thing. It is both economic and spiritual. It fulfills needs for significance and meaning as well as needs for food and shelter. If the evidence from my study is in any way typical, we may find that the key to doing more with less without burning out lies in the alignment of one's activities and goals with higher values and truths. When workers feel an alignment or correspondence between what they do and their inner sense of rightness, there is less efforting and more flow to their actions.


Openness to Stakeholders' Feedback Fosters Trust

What if a company is pursuing goals that seem unsustainable -- at least in the eyes of some members? What does this do to morale and productivity? In some of the communities I studied, this issue had caused quite a bit of controversy. When this issue did arise, the important factor in determining whether members' full commitment could be sustained was the degree to which they felt heard and respected by management. When the organization was willing to listen to critical feedback from stakeholders, those stakeholders continued to participate with enthusiasm. When such feedback was ignored, discouraged, orpunished, morale suffered noticeably.

There will always be organizations whose purpose or methods feel "off" to some of its membership. I have found in doing research for my most recent book,Survival Strategies for the New Workplace, that if the leadership is open to learning from other parts of the system, then commitment can be built or sustained even if the purpose still has some bugs in it. If an organization's purpose is not aligned with the good of the whole, the organization's process can still include mechanisms for communicating and learning about how to enhance such alignment. Organizations that inspire enthusiasm and commitment are those whose leaders listen, respond and model an openness to learning.

As we know, a shared vision is an important mechanism for achieving group alignment. In the Earth Communities,the visioning process began with an examination of how the group vision was aligned with the needs of the Earth as a living system. Community members reported that this gave them a much deeper sense of purpose and support. When they made explicit how they were supportingsomething larger than their own bottom line, they felt supported by thissomething larger. According to one community pioneer, "the universe cannot give support for very long to people or groups whose purposes do not support the common good."

Vision was seen in these groups as a source of energy and inspiration. In order to serve this function, the vision had to be worthy of one's passion and commitment.


Fostering Bioregional Identity

One way the groups in my study fostered an ecological awareness in their members was by helping people see themselves as residing in a particular bioregion. A bioregion is to ecology what a state or nation is to politics. Instead of identifying primarily with a political subdivision, community members were encouraged to see themselves as part of an ecological niche or watershed -- each with its own combination of natural resources, climatic and geographical conditions.

Such bioregional stewardship seems to promote a sense of global responsibility and relatedness to the whole. It fosters the ability to "think globally, whileacting locally," or to nourish and heal the whole by attending to that aspectof the whole that is within one's domain (one's body, one's psyche, one's own backyard). This identification with the larger community of which we are apart, if fostered in mainstream organizations, could help workers feel more connected to that "something larger than oneself" that lies at the heart of peoples' spiritual longing. When an organization can contribute to workers' identification with something beyond their own private gain, they are at thesame time contributing to workers' identification with that organization.



People who see their business and personal relationships as vehicles for learning are less attached to having things turn out a certain way than are people who see relationships as sources of comfort and security. They are less attached to having others agree with them and less attached to the need to be right or in control. A value on learning, instead of control, is essential if one is to truly respect people who see things differently from oneself. A commitment to learning from differences, rather than trying to get people to do things your way, was shared by all the groups in my study.


Methods for Learning from Differences

The groups whose work relationships were most productive and harmonious were those which had instituted regular procedures for communicating about, learning from, and clearing away relationship tensions and conflicts. Several of the groups used a format called "the Clearness Committee.&quo;t The Clearness Committee is an old Quaker ritual in which all community members belong to a three-person support group which acts as a sounding board and mirror for interpersonal differences and tensions. By meeting regularly with one's Clearness Committee, each person was supported in taking responsibility to learn from those people and situations that bugged them the most, and thus to clear away the internal and interpersonal tension associated with the relationship. Your committee's function was to support your learning without taking your side.

When I compare this to the typical lunch room gossiping that serves as an outlet for frustration in many of the organizations with whom I have consulted, I see a crying need for people to have a more constructive avenue for dealing with their daily frustrations.

It was my observation that those communities who were using the Clearness Committee process spent much less time in disagreement and debate in meetings. Gossiping was practically non existent. Having one's own three-person listening post offered the added opportunity for self-expression, clarification of feelings, and a sense of being heard that all people seem to need. This strengthened each person's sense of trust and belonging in a way that transferred to the organization/community as a whole.


Community Promotes Communication and Commitment

Most businesses I have worked with have a lot in common with the "dysfunctional families" described in popular magazines and self-help books. One of the differences between a healthy system and a dysfunctional one is the way the group deals with the unique needs and views of the individual members. In a dysfunctional system, some members benefit at other members' expense. Only certain more powerful or feared members get their way. Others conform or comply due to a fear of rocking the boat. One problem with such a system is that you never really know what people are thinking because it is not safe to voice a minority opinion. Thus, people mistrust one another and important information that may be needed for critical decision-making is unavailable to those who need it.

Certainly it is not a simple matter to just change from dysfunctional to healthy. It is not easy for those in power to share it or for those who have invested more of their hard-earned dollars to invite others into the businessas partners. Yet these sorts of changes must and will take place if we are to survive and thrive in a workplace where the best and the brightest will not tolerate disrespectful, paternalistic treatment.

People long to participate with others in meaningful, useful work. People long for the sense of community that many only hear stories about from their grandparents. It behooves American business to search for ways of creating such a sense of community in the workplace.

From studying groups where the sense of community is already present, the thing that stands out most is the tremendous power that is unleashed when people feel they are a vital and respected part of a meaningful collective enterprise. In today's world, giving workers more money is not the answer. Money does not satisfy the deeper need that defines why most people work. People want ownership, not money. They want self-expression, not self-aggrandizement. They want to participate in and serve something larger than their own ego needs.

People want community. They need to feel connected to something larger than themselves. They want the opportunity to give and receive, to teach and learn,to help and be helped. Work is no longer a nine to five thing. It is a person's vocation. If we can re-vision our business organizations as communities, where workers are supported in expressing these deeper aspects ofthemselves while pursuing financial goals, we will unleash an energy source that we are only just beginning to understand.

by Susan Campbell

The Business Transformation Book Café is a project of Vision Nest Publishing
Last updated by webmaster, April 23, 1997 .