Serving Our Employees and Volunteers: Teaching, Mentoring and Spirit-Building in the Workplace

Hesselbein and Company

By Santo D. MarabellaSeptember 9, 2014 | Print

There are a number of disconcerting phenomena that characterize today's workplace in the United States. One that is particularly troubling is the depleted energy and degraded spirit of our most important asset—our people.

Finding causes would be easy, and two plausible possibilities come to mind immediately. First, although the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the most recent recession to the U.S. economy officially ended in June 2009, economists and experience tell us the impacts and recovery, like the recession itself, are years in the making. Besides the devastating financial and economic effects, we could blame the recession for draining the emotional and motivational psyche of employees across the country. Employee loyalty is down as is loyalty and satisfaction from customers; passion is hard to find, because it seems business processes aren't the only thing technology has “automated,” and connectedness and community have been supplanted by self-interest and isolation. But, if that isn't enough, another more subtle, albeit just as demoralizing, culprit can be indicted. We could blame the slow deterioration of our employees' emotional and mental wellness in the “profit-first, double-digit returns” (read greed) that pervades the corporate strategies and policies of some businesses. In these cases, the push for profits seems to be without consideration for the impact on people, and can result in job layoffs and eliminations; but this disregard can certainly have the same deleterious effects on people who are left in the workplace after others have been let go.

My graduate school preparation in social work and business gave rise to my teaching philosophy of “management with a heart.” As a result, I make no apologies for focusing more on the people part of creating and growing organizations. Consequently, I am less concerned with assigning blame than finding ways of restoring wellness. I believe as leaders and managers, you have a tremendous responsibility and ability to make a difference. Now, more than ever, your followers and employees need you to be great “servant leaders,” as Robert Greenleaf described, ones who serve first. I have some ideas about how you can serve, but first let's look at some of the context for my concern.

The Impact of Low Energy and Degraded Spirit

Here is how I see it. Whether it is a direct effect of the recession or the byproduct of a campaign driven by heightened corporate greed, the outcome is the same: the loss of existing jobs, the lack of new jobs, and the extra work for those remaining in their jobs. What follows is a severe degradation of spirit and depletion of energy among employees in the workforce. Individuals in the workplace have become automatons, tools of production and profit, in a fashion not that dissimilar to Marx's themes of alienation and objectification. People are happy just to have a job so they either don't care or don't dare complain.

Regardless, there are serious consequences. In my opinion, the trampled spirit and zapped energy have left us with employees who have low loyalty to their company or their company's clients and customers, no longer know or relate to their passion, and feel no sense of community in their workplace.

Loyalty from employees is important. In fact, the assertion that employee loyalty precedes a company's financial and market performance was demonstrated by University of Maryland researcher, Benjamin Schneider and his colleagues in 2009. And, as far back as 1997, University of Pennsylvania researchers, in a study of 3,000 companies, found productivity more than doubled when a company invested in developing their employee capital over capital improvements—which was more than twice as much than when the same investment was spent on capital improvements.

As for passion, to me, it is the biggest element “missing” in the workplace and in individual employees' work life. It is what gets you to get up early, stay up late, skip meals, and feel excited—that's your passion.

The popular business press tells us that failing to connect employees' work to their passion is likely among the top five reasons companies lose their top talent.

Workers feel disconnected. “It's work time, not social hour—toughen up!” you say? The 2013 State of the American Workplace by the Gallup Organization claims that 70 percent of Americans either hate work or are completely disengaged, and perks don't help. The dissatisfaction, anger, and boredom felt by workers hurts the frail economy in incredible ways. It costs the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually in lost productivity, employee theft, and absenteeism. Also, American workers who report feeling “engaged” in their organizations is down 2 percent to 28 percent of the total surveyed (about 150,000 full- and part-time employees).

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the bad news. I contend that many of today's workplace problems—such as bullying, careless communications, avoiding workplace problems, poor customer service, warped work–family life balances, high stress, low productivity—have been created or worsened because spirit and energy are scant. Did you know that more than one-third of U.S. workers report being bullied, many by their bosses, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute? Are you aware that a 2013 Pew study found that 50 percent of working fathers and 56 percent of working mothers found it very or somewhat difficult to balance work and family? And, is it surprising to you that Convergys, a leading provider of customer management solutions claims that customer service complaints have risen by 13% since 2009? Although we may not be able to draw definitive correlations, the associations are worth our attention.

What Leaders and Managers Can Do

We need to let go of business as usual, and be open to different roles as leaders and managers. Specifically, I suggest as individuals and organizations, we embrace and develop competencies in teaching, mentoring, and spirit-building to better serve our people. The first two have been addressed quite well previously, so I will focus mostly on the third—spirit-building. I do believe these roles transcend sectors. One of the profound lessons Peter Drucker taught us is that what's good for our companies and employees is good for our not-for-profits and volunteers, and vice versa. This is no exception.


A teaching role makes sense when we view continuous improvement as more than surviving, but as “generative learning” that enhances our capacity to create, as defined by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. Typically, learning has been achieved by corporate training, which is the subject of the 2013 Bersin by Deloitte industry report on trends in U.S. corporate training. Called The Corporate Learning Factbook 2013: Benchmarks, Trends, and Analysis of the U.S. Training Market, it is based on a study of more than 300 training organizations representing a broad cross-section of company sizes and industries.

Among the data presented are two facts relevant to our discussion. First, corporate training budgets increased by 9.5 percent to $800 per employee, as companies continue to reverse the deep cuts they made in 2008 and 2009. Filling gaps that diminish a company's competitiveness is the reason for the reversal. Not a surprise that competitiveness erodes when learning diminishes. Second, “mature” companies—those that focus on improving performance through training and other talent initiatives—spend about 34 percent more on training, and it is typically instructor-led, customized learning.

The data reinforce for me the need for managers and leaders to be teachers and advocates of learning organizations. Even though I am an academic, I have learned a lot about effective teaching from my work with business and not-for-profit organizations. To me, effective teaching is built on four foundational concepts: simplicity, pragmatism, continuous learning, and fun—all of which are easily transferable to the “teacher” in the workplace.

Building on these guiding principles, we can create ongoing learning opportunities from everyday situations and breakdowns; we can invest in training and development through workshops and conferences; we can assess that our training objectives are defined and met; and we can connect everyone with coaches and mentors (more on this next). All of this can be achieved in ways that are sensitive to time and budgetary constraints and that evolve as leaders and managers see benefits and returns.


Next, I wish to address mentoring. There is a generally held distinction between coaching and mentoring in a workplace context. Coaching is typically task oriented, and would correspond to the teaching competency we referenced previously, whereas mentoring, on the other hand, is more often considered relationship oriented.

It is evident to me that only some of the learning takes place in the classroom. A lot of learning occurs in the student/faculty advisor relationship. I have had the wonderful pleasure of experiencing how much students value responsive and dedicated academic advisors and how often my former students, now alumni, continue to seek my advice in our postgraduation relationships. Your employees and volunteers deserve to have that same experience, to come to think of you as their personal advisor for their work life! Whether it is in challenging economic times or times of growth, we know that mentoring can be invaluable to the individual being mentored (mentee), the organization, and of course, the mentor.

Briefly the benefits can be summarized in this way. The value of a mentor who can help cultivate leadership skills one on one in real-time, reduce the anxiety in taking big steps, and focus leaders on achieving their goals is significant.

Management Mentors, founded by Rene D. Petrin in 1989, identifies a number of benefits for both the organization and the mentor. For the organization: enhancing strategic business initiatives, encouraging retention, reducing turnover costs, improving productivity, and creating a mentoring culture that continuously promotes employee growth and development. And, for the mentor: gaining insights for their own development from the mentee's background and history, being reenergized, learning more about unfamiliar areas within their organization, and feeling satisfaction in sharing expertise with others. As with volunteerism, I see that mentors can at the same time be altruistic and self-interested (with no ill effects).


Employees' spirit is waning; managers and leaders need to help them get it back. This is the message about which I care the most.

Workplace spirituality has gained visibility and respect in the past 20 years, even though it was conceptualized during the early part of the last century. The Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance provides a comprehensive description of the development of spirituality at work. It states that work was viewed as having a spiritual component—leaders were leading not just for the achievement of tasks but as part of the ‘greater good.’ But as modernization and industrialization occurred, spirituality was forced to the background. Its reacceptance was thwarted by the association of spirituality with religion, according to researchers Badrinarayanan and Madhavaram. They argued that workplace spirituality, when identified with workplace religion, implied the belief in a particular god or propagation of a particular set of beliefs, which was uncomfortable or perceived as inappropriate for many businesses.

So, why the sudden renewed interest in spirituality at work? Many of the explanations offered center around a common theme—a generalized feeling that workplaces in the United States have become insecure or even scary environments as a result of pervasive downsizing by numerous companies. A number of factors, considered contributors to this phenomenon, include the fear of losing jobs, the emotional impact on those who remain after companies downsize, and generally the requisite to do more with less—all of which are consistent with the spirit and energy “drain” I alluded to in my introduction.

What exactly is workplace spirituality? Is it religion in the workplace? Job ethics? Morality at work?

Of the many conceptualizations, I like the way Badrinarayanan and Madhavaram characterize workplace spirituality: as beliefs and values, inner longing for meaning and community, a connection between spirituality and ethics. They frame the concept as three interrelated components: inner self, meaningful work, and connectedness. Inner self means bringing one's whole self to work, being able to be the same person at work as you are at home or in the community. Meaningful work is subjective and personal to each employee, but what is common for all employees is that “meaning” has implications beyond the financial rewards typically associated with workplaces. Work is perceived to have a higher purpose than profit. Finally, connectedness is about community; employees committed to being a part of a company's workforce.

There is one additional, albeit important “connection”—it's the connection that spirituality has to positive impacts in the workplace. Researchers have demonstrated several benefits of workplace spirituality, such as enhancing a leader's competence in strategic decision making, maintaining a competitive advantage, and enriching employee attitudes.

Embrace workplace spirituality. Build spirit around these three components.

Inner self. Identify your employees' creative, professional, emotional, ethical needs that enable them to bring their whole self to work and create opportunities to fulfill those needs. Employees and volunteers who thrive on having creative outlets might be great candidates for problem solving or strategy making.

Meaningful work. I know you can't change every job and make it “meaningful”—some jobs are mundane and routine. But I'm sure the value those jobs hold for your company's success is meaningful, so be sure to let your employees know that, and often. You'll see the benefit in long-term productivity and performance.

Connectedness. Create and implement ways to help employees connect with one another and feel like a part of a community at your workplace. Am I asking you to sit in a circle, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya”? Well, if that's what it takes to demonstrate that you're serious about building community, then, yes! It is possible to create a work environment in which employees feel valued and committed to the organization and to each other.

If what I propose “stretches” your comfort zone or business model, you may be asking yourself if it's worth it. Research by Harvard Business School, in 2003, suggests the answer is “yes.” Harvard looked at 10 companies with strong corporate cultures—they consider these companies to have “spirited workplaces.” They also look at 10 companies with weak corporate cultures. Both were drawn from a list of 207 leading corporations. The researchers found a dramatic correlation between the strength of an organization's corporate culture and its profitability in an 11-year period.

The costs to develop these competencies are reasonable, regardless of organization size or sector. The greatest “cost” is to mindset, culture, and business models. You may have to give up some aspects of your way of leading and managing. In particular, you may have to distance yourself from any presumptions that minimize or ignore the importance of tending to the affective and motivational needs of the people who do the work in your organization or business. Resistant leaders and managers will hear me asking you to become your employees' therapist or social life director. Not at all. I am asking you to stop ignoring the realities of drained employee spirits and depleted energy, and the cost your companies and organizations, and your people, are paying.

A Call to Service

In summary, I see loyalty, passion, and community or “connectedness” fading away, at great cost to our employees and companies, our volunteers, and our organizations. We cannot stand idly as our people drift away from their self, their passion, their work, and their companies and organizations. They want to renew their spirit and recharge their energy so their satisfaction and productivity might flourish once again. They need you to inspire, challenge complacency, and provide effective practical strategies to achieve greater personal achievement. They want to bring their personal ethics to work, to believe that work challenges are manageable, the interactions they have with coworkers can be more authentic and productive, and personal enrichment and contentment is possible. They need you to guide them, encourage them, and show them all of this is possible.

I have witnessed this first hand in my recent work leading groups of established community theatres and emerging filmmakers. My experiences have underscored the importance of my role as spirit champion. The volunteers and employees I have worked with have passion, commitment, and knowledge, but they lose energy and spirit from the many obstacles that limited resources and rejections in making art present. They look to me as their spirit champion.

I am calling you to service. As managers and leaders, serve your people as teachers and mentors, which many already do well. But, mostly, I am imploring you to become spirit builders for all of your people. Set the tone, create, or strengthen the culture and assure the implementation of an institutionalized philosophy of service to your people in this way. Be their CSO—chief spirit officer. Be their servant leader in this way!

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