When people speak about the soul — outside of a purely religious context — they’re usually referring to the qualities of something (or someone) that they see as fundamental to its identity. The word “soul” is shorthand for the innermost, truest or most obviously unique nature of whatever or whoever they are referring to.
Used in this way, the word can apply to people (where it means whatever they feel is quintessentially “them”), ideas (the part that cannot be taken away without destroying the whole), artistic works (the essence of what makes them great), and communities and organizations. The “soul” of an organization, for example, consists of those apects that make it uniquely what it is — for good or ill.
In the workplace, the “souls” of many people meet with the “soul” of the organization. In a civilized organization, this is recognized: maybe not precisely in this way, but in the sense that time and space are allocated to treating people with dignity and allowing them to be themselves. Sadly, in others great violence is done to people’s souls. The “souls” of organizations like this are harsh and unforgiving. People are treated as “resources” to be used in whatever way most benefits the organization — and sometimes thrust aside when their usefulness is past. Their uniqueness is ignored and their innermost hopes and dreams seen as irrelevant to economic goals.
Individuals also do violence to their souls whenever they act in ways that they know, deep down, are at variance with who they truly are; when they accept situations out of fear, greed, or yearning for security even though they feel sick at heart for doing it; or when they fall in with convention for the sake of ambition or “not rocking the boat.”
I do not think you can do damage to your soul with impunity. I am not talking in religious terms. I am speaking merely of that sense of yourself and what you feel, deep down, is right and good for you. Harming this — even compromising it regularly — does serious psychological damage that builds up into stress and depression. In extreme cases, it can become a kind of self-loathing that leads people into terrible actions.
Finding ways to make the workplace civilized isn’t simply a pleasant idea, like decorating a house to make it look welcoming or an attractive place to live. It’s essential to people’s well-being; essential too for the long-term health of the organization. David Whyte, writing in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, puts it exactly.
For consultants and management gurus, the soul is a slippery customer. One the one hand it may be dismissed completely. Many trainers and consultants maintain that the soul belongs at home or in church. But with little understanding of the essential link between the soul life and the creative gifts of their employees, hardheaded businesses listening so carefully to hardheaded consultants may go the way of the incredibly hardheaded dinosaurs. For all their emphasis on the bottom line, they are adrift from the very engine at the center of a person’s creative application to work; they cultivate a workforce unable to respond with personal artistry to the confusion of global market change.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.