The organisation’s total grip on the human being

Excesses of Ideology: Purpose Cult, Wellbeing and Respiritualisation

Excesses of Ideology: Purpose Cult, Wellbeing and Respiritualisation

Purpose Cult

Under the heading »Ideology of Change«, Georg Martensen writes about the return of the »whole« human being in his »Findings« on organisation, leadership, and their counselling in change. What is meant is not a return to the existence of human beings and their existential issues, needs and possibilities, but the reaching out of »greedy institutions« to their leaders, who in turn increasingly focus on »the whole« human being: »People are then supposed to give their all, their work is supposed to become the centre of their meaning in life.« It seems that the market and information society is no longer comfortable with seeing people as commodities and raw materials. Even »homo economicus« does not seem to be able to get by without a foundation of meaning.

Not only globally active »21st century« non‐​profit organisations, domestic start‐​ups or tech organisations of the Silicon Valley type, but also large corporations such as Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post DHL Group or Deutsche Bahn have each added the dimension of »purpose« to their mission statements. Mission statements have long since not only talked about corporate goals and purposes, but also about the self‐​imposed mission of helping individual employees to experience meaning.

Especially the milieus of performers, expeditive and adaptive‐​pragmatic milieus (Sinus Institute, 2020) as well as their organisational and corporate forms seem to have fallen into the »purpose trap« so far. The dramatic change in the markets and thus also in the world of work is contributing to the fact that traditional professions and organisations as well as administration and industry are also increasingly in search of purpose: Mission statement processes, future workshops and organisational and team development can no longer do without the Reason Why and its Golden Circle (characterised by the three questions »Why?«, »What?« and »How?«).

»Innovation managers« are in demand who, by means of »presencing« (Otto Scharmer’s »Theory U«, »creating new solutions together«) and design thinking processes, focus on change towards a bright future – and at the same time, qua fulfilment of meaning through creative participation in change, attain a better, higher self‐​integrated in the organisation. The once healthy scepticism of employees towards such processes has partly given way to a resigned attitude, partly it is now channelled into the opposite, into euphoric participation in the conception of the entrepreneurial big picture.

This is also visible on the outside: windows and glass panes are labelled with processes and structural models; corridor walls are hung with post‐​its and graphic recordings of the last creative sessions for all to see; in the social rooms there are posters with the company mission or current issues that the employees should discuss; of course, the sofa corner, swing, hammock, the famous football table (we used to have a billiard table as well, note by the author) must not be missing. There is a bookcase for exchanging books, a fruit and vegetable box from the nearest regionally producing organic farmer, etc. Some organisations use old factory halls, unused swimming pools, abandoned breweries, disused harbour cranes, moored barges, parked railway wagons – anything that promises a break from the usual environment to be creatively active here.

»Passion« for the mission, the »organisational sense«, should develop, but for this it also needs support from outside, for example through famous and motivating speakers: »If the companies invite business or marketing experts, then they actually want to get information and not just a vague feel‐​good message. However, if it is about issues concerning the human soul, then it sounds more like they want to convey mental message to their employees and not something worthy of the name information or training.« (Strenger, 2011)

Wellbeing and Re‐spiritualisation

After a phase of de-spiritualisation that lasted for decades, fuelled primarily by driving forces such as globalisation, economisation and individualisation, an era of re-spiritualisation has been emerging for years: Suddenly, holism is the new norm for looking at people and work. Programmes like »mindfulness« also contribute to feeling good in the company. This is controlled by specially recruited »well‐​being managers«, »feel‐​good managers«, »company culture managers« or »cordiality officers«, who are then supposed to put the emotional balance and physical fitness in order so that performance motivation is also right: What do employees need to feel good at work? Tea kitchen, fruit basket, massages … What else do they need besides a sense of well‐​being? There is also corporate volunteering on offer or simply a sabbatical.

According to statements by companies and feel‐​good managers, qualities such as empathy, energy, commitment, fairness, positive thinking, openness, communicative thinking, fun (at work) are absolutely part of the job. Their tasks are diverse, they organise team building, grievance boxes, feedback, »starters lunch« for new employees, trainee excursions, »self‐​help when in a bad mood«, team events, »Family & Friends BBQ«, bar camps, »class trips«, fitness flat rates, trips to the high ropes course, medieval sword fights – including after‐​work cocktails in the trendy lounge around the corner or, quite casually, drinking beer together from the crate in the tea kitchen.

In addition to the dimension of well‐​being, feel‐​good managers also focus on the spiritual side of people. It is not uncommon for team building and training to also address the belief systems and beliefs of the organisation and the employees. The idea that we are much more valuable, talented, better, and potentially more successful, and just not living up to our potentials, guides many counselling settings and training offers. »I am living (working) below my potential« is often heard in coaching sessions with young leaders. The seductive power of these thoughts (»I can do it if I only want to«, »I just have to become one with myself, then I will find the right way«, »I can achieve the impossible if I strengthen my will«) is enormous. A whole industry of »pop spirituality« has been setting up extensive programmes and offers for many years – which are also used by organisations. For example, the whole staff comes to an event with a motivational guru in the city hall; the team arranges to meet for a yoga retreat in Tuscany; the company training programme includes courses in mindfulness and meditation. Those who are not able to organise these things for themselves in the private sphere now find them in the context of the work‐​giving organisation.