2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

EDITORIAL: Research and Teaching on Spirituality and Spiritual Leadership in Management

Current Trends and Possible Future Directions

Research into spirituality and religion and management and spiritual leadership first began to appear in management academic journals in the late 1990s. Arguably two of the first notable books on the topic were Bolman and Deal’s Leading with Soul[1] and Mitroff and Denton’s A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America.[2]

When I first began writing about spirituality and management, I was interested in studying how a person’s own personal experience of spirituality (e.g., spiritual experiences or practices a person had, a person’s level of consciousness or experience of consciousness, “spiritual awakening” or “aha experiences”) might influence how she or he behaved in a management setting or how they influenced the way the person might structure or manage an organization. This interest was sparked by my own personal spiritual experiences. In this article I will summarize where I consider the current state of research to be, and give some suggestions for future research and for teaching and practice implications.

Current state of research    

After the first 10 years or so of publications in the area, I and several colleagues developed a theoretical model that was designed to “map the territory” in which most of the research had and is being done on the topic of spirituality in organizations.[3] The model was broken down into three main dimensions—level, measures, and validity. “Level” referred to the level of analysis of the study, and was further divided into individual, work unit, whole organization, and society. “Measures” referred to the types of data being examined or phenomena being measured by the measurement instruments or procedures used in each particular study; they were described as either measuring cognition; emotion; action, behaviors or processes; or other measures. Lastly, “validity” referred to the way in which the phenomenon being studied is validated—as either internally perceived experiences (interior) validated only by the person having or reporting the experience, or externally observable or measurable phenomena (exterior) which can be “objectively” validated. This three-dimensional model resulted in 32 possible combinations. Any given study may fall into one or more of these boxes.

We tested the model using 187 empirical studies in the field that were published from 1996-2004, and classifying the published research using the model, showed those areas of research that had received the most and the least amount of research attention to that point. With regard to levels, most of the studies reported were at the individual level. There were few studies at the organizational level and very few reported at the work unit level and society levels. With regard to measures, most of the studies reported using surveys to measure cognitive and action/process variables. Those studies that were done using interviews, focus groups, and other types of qualitative techniques were most likely to measure a combination of cognitive, emotional, and action/process variables. In terms of validity, most of the studies used interior validity from some type of self-report.

The results of testing the model suggested that future research should be conducted at all levels—particularly at the work unit and organizational levels, and should involve more attempts at external validity, using measures that go beyond self-report to more externally observed measurements such as observations or externally measured behaviors or processes.[4]

The model that we presented and tested in 2007 is similar to the All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) model that Ken Wilber has described in several of his publications (e.g. Wilber, 2006).[5] To date I am not aware of anyone who has published spirituality and management research specifically using Wilber’s AQAL model or aspects of that model.

I believe that research into spirituality and management is at an interesting stage of development. Several of the original “founding parents” have stopped being involved with research or writing about spirituality and religion and management (for a variety of professional and personal reasons), or have moved on to other areas of research—turning things over to the next generation.

While there has always been a healthy tension among spirituality researchers between those advocating more rigorous empirical research versus those who would rather pursue more creative non-traditional research, recent research seems, in my opinion, to have become increasingly only empirical, with the emphasis in many studies being how spirituality or religion (or even one particular religion), however defined in the particular study, can be used to increase corporate profits or can be used  to make the organization more efficient or productive to improve the bottom line, with less research on how spirituality or religion can be used to improve the quality of life within an organization—unless this leads to improving the “bottom line.”

Suggestions for future research

In light of the above observations, I would like to propose the following suggestions for possible future research in the areas of spirituality and religion and spiritual leadership and management:

  1. Explore research into other as yet under researched areas of the Tischler et. al. model and Wilber’s AQAL model—especially those involving levels of consciousness

As summarized above, the results of testing the Tischler, Biberman, and Altman model suggested that future research should be conducted at all levels—particularly at the work unit and organizational levels, and should involve more attempts at external validity, using measures that go beyond self-report to more externally observed measurements such as observations or externally measured behaviors or processes.[6] With regard to Wilber’s AQAL model, since to date no one has published research examining spirituality and management research specifically using Wilber’s AQAL model, research involving the various aspects of his model would be useful.

  1. Greater clarity of distinction/relationship between spirituality and religion and their implications for research

There has always been a tension between those researchers who were interested in studying the relationship of religion to management with those interested in studying the relation of spirituality to management. Researchers often (sometimes intentionally) blurred the distinction between the two. This has sometimes led to a lack of clarity or consensus as to what is being studied—ranging from the degree to which a person agrees with or holds a particular belief or belief system relating to a specific religion to whether a person engages in a spiritual practice that may be related to several religions (or outside of a religion), to the degree to which a person has experienced or “felt” a certain psychological or “transpersonal” state of consciousness (which could range from generic feelings such as “love” to higher levels or states of consciousness described by mystics and referred to by Wilber and others). I think it would be interesting to see more research that attempts to differentiate and deal more explicitly with both the belief systems and behavioral practices of spirituality and religion, and that investigates new methods for measuring such seemingly ineffable and hard to measure (or even define) concepts as altered states of mind and levels of consciousness.

  1. Use research methodologies from other academic areas

In other publications[7] [8] I have suggested that researchers look at techniques that have been developed and used in other related academic disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology to see if those techniques could be adapted for use in spirituality in management research. Particularly useful would be research methodology that could examine states of consciousness and other subjective psychological experiences as well as techniques involving introspection and self-reflection other than Likert scales on surveys. In the early years of the Management, Spirituality and Religion (MSR) group of the Academy of Management there were many interesting and creative presentations of non-traditional research in dissertations and in conference presentations—including the use of drawings, collages, and other non-traditional research techniques. It would be useful to expand the scope of spirituality research by returning to the use of more creative research methodologies.  There are also several qualitative techniques that have been developed and used in other disciplines that could be adapted to management and spirituality research (e.g., those detailed in Pfaffenberger, Marko, and Combs, 2011, as reviewed in Young and Biberman, 2016).[9]

  1. More research relating spiritual leadership to spirituality and religion

There has been extensive research on spiritual leadership. Much of it has been conducted by Fry using the scale he developed (e.g. Fry, 2008).[10] The scale has been used in a variety of settings, thus generating a great deal of data.

It would be useful to see future research that relates spiritual leadership to research into other aspects of management and spirituality and religion. It would also be useful to see other research approaches to spiritual leadership (or, more generally, into spirituality and leadership) that would examine such things as how leadership behavior changes with or is related to one’s level of consciousness, such as described in spiral dynamics and other similar approaches (e.g. Beck and Cowan, 1996)[11] or where a leader stands in respect to the different levels of Wilber’s AQAL model. It would also be useful to study whether a leader’s behavior is more influenced by her or his religious or spiritual beliefs or by the specific behavioral spiritual practices (such as prayer and meditation) in which a leader may engage.

  1. Research relating mindfulness to aspects of spirituality and religion other than just positivist research

One topic related to spirituality and religion that has received recent attention in both the popular and academic literature is that of “mindfulness.” Mindfulness was the cover story of a recent issue of Time magazine, and there have been recent academic publications and conference papers devoted to the subject. Mindfulness is not really a new practice, but is, rather, a type of meditation practice—falling into the meditation category of “concentration”—that has (like all types of meditation) been practiced in and outside formal religions for centuries.

The recent attention to mindfulness reminds me of the attention that was given to transcendental meditation and to whatever type of spiritual practice or book about spiritual practice that Oprah Winfrey used to feature in the book discussions on her show. As with research on meditation, research on mindfulness has also, for the most part, been positivist and mostly concerned with whether mindfulness practice improves a person’s health and/or various aspects of an organization’s bottom line.

As with spiritual leadership and the other research I discussed above, it would be useful to see future research that relates mindfulness to research into other aspects of management and spirituality and religion. It would also be useful to see other research approaches to mindfulness that would examine such things as how mindfulness practice changes or is related to one’s level of consciousness, changes or improves one’s behavior in an organization, and how these changes in behavior relate to the different levels of Wilber’s AQAL model.

Teaching and practice implications

I spent more than 30 years teaching undergraduate and graduate students at a Jesuit university (the University of Scranton) and attending teaching sessions at national conferences such as the Organization Behavior Teaching Conference and the Academy of Management. While a professor at the University of Scranton I completed the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola and had a series of Jesuit spiritual directors. My experiences with the Jesuits, combined with my Jewish heritage and interest in and experience of Kaballa (Jewish mysticism) and other types of mysticism had a major influence on not only my interest in research and writing about spirituality and religion and management, but also on my teaching philosophy, my classroom teaching assignments, and student learning assessment, on the way in which I taught my classes. They also led to my making a number of conference presentations on teaching.

Two major tenets of Ignatian education philosophy are (in Latin) the magis and cura personalis. Magis is roughly interpreted to mean a striving for excellence (or the most). Cura personalis has been roughly interpreted as meaning caring for the whole person. My teaching philosophy has been influenced by these two tenets. Thus, I strive in all of my teaching to teach the “whole person.” For me, this means not just lecturing and grading on multiple choice tests, but on using a variety of experiential teaching methods, and on using a variety of writing and journaling assignments to have students reflect on what they learned from their experiences. My assessment of their responses is based not just on whether they can recite back a theory, but to the extent that they can apply the theory to analyze how the theory applied to their own experience.

If the criteria for impact for scholarly writing were the degree to which scholarly writing actually influenced or changed managerial or student behavior, then I would say that the things that I wrote which seemed to have the most impact were the articles and books involving teaching methodologies and the use of stories in the classroom (e.g. Marques, Dhiman, and Biberman, 2011, 2011 and 2012),[12] [13] [14] as these may have had an impact on teachers who used them in their classes and subsequently may have changed some of their students’ behaviors.

Looking back, on reflection, between my scholarship, teaching and service activities, teaching was the activity that seems to have had the biggest impact, and to have been my most meaningful activity, in that the students who I taught over the past thirty-some years continue to contact me to tell me how I influenced or changed their behaviors, or how the courses were meaningful to their lives and to their careers.

My experiences have led me to make the following recommendations, which I believe are useful for not only university classroom teaching but also for organization training and human resource development:

  1. Use experiential techniques involving introspection

Rather than just lecturing and grading on multiple choice tests, use a variety of experiential teaching methods, and use a variety of writing and journaling assignments to have students reflect of what they learned from their experiences. My assessment of student responses and writing is based not just on whether they can recite back a theory, but to the extent that they can apply a theory to analyze how the theory applied to their own experience.

  1. Incorporate meditation, mindfulness, and other integral spiritual practices into classroom activities

There are a number of books and other resources that describe both how to do these practices and how to incorporate them into classroom activities (e.g. Marques, Dhiman, and Biberman, 2011,[15] among many others).

  1. Incorporate the impact of the researcher’s and teacher’s personal spiritual practices and beliefs into her or his own research and teaching

In my experience, students were most impacted by experiencing the degree to which their teacher “walked the talk” when it came to teaching about spirituality and religion and management. I did a lot of self-disclosure and sharing of my own spiritual and religious beliefs and practices in my classes, while at the same time encouraging students to discover and follow their own personal beliefs and practices. I believe that self-disclosure is different than preaching or proselytizing. My students seemed to be impacted more by their seeing and knowing that I meditate and do not drink or do drugs, for example, than by my proselytizing to them as to what to do or believe.

Concluding Remarks

Research and teaching on spirituality and spiritual leadership in management continue to face challenges. The general area continues to not be considered as “mainstream,” but more of a fringe area of research.

There have still as yet been very few publications on the topic in mainstream “prestigious” management journals (including official Academy of Management journals). These mainstream journals, which have very low acceptance rates, are more favorably considered in many academic departments seeking to attain or maintain accreditation status.

Spirituality researchers, like all researchers, have the human tendency to want to have their research be taken seriously by their colleagues in the management research academic area, and they find it difficult to hear their research interests being attacked as “flaky” or “kooky” or not being taken seriously as a serious field of inquiry by their colleagues.  This becomes especially important when their work is being evaluated for tenure or promotion, or as to whether it qualifies as counting toward being “academically qualified” for business school certification. Business school accrediting agencies have been placing increasing emphasis on faculty publishing several articles each year in peer reviewed academic journals in order to remain “academically qualified.” Many business schools rate the academic journals that they would prefer their faculty to publish in on the “quality” of the journal, with quality usually being equated with the percentage of journal submissions that get accepted for publication. “Top tier” journals tend to have very low acceptance rates and to emphasize traditional empirical management research methodology.

From the teaching perspective, business school professors who teach material related to spirituality and spiritual leadership and management are most often Management or Organization Behavior teachers, who often find their approaches, philosophy, and teaching methodologies different and at odds with those of the other more traditional business school faculty in their school.

In terms of the intersection of research and teaching, one way in which a stream of research can be seen as mainstream is whether it becomes included in syllabi of business school courses (or itself becomes a separate course) and whether the topic is mentioned in business course textbooks. Thus for spirituality to be considered mainstream we would expect to see it as a topic mentioned in a management or organization behavior textbook or as part of a management or organization behavior course outline. While there are a small number of business schools that have separate courses on spirituality, and several that include spirituality in their management or organization behavior courses, I am not aware of any management or organization behavior textbooks that explicitly mention the topic of spirituality or have a description of any spirituality researchers or their research.

I believe that the upcoming generation of academic scholars will be able to rise above these challenges. I am encouraged by the great interest in the area that I have observed in recent new members to the Management, Spirituality and Religion group of the Academy of Management, who have expressed interest in understanding the history of the field to date and in expanding the field in new and exciting ways. I am also encouraged by the continued interest that new business school faculty express in incorporating the topic of spirituality and spiritual practices into their classrooms and teaching techniques. I believe that research and teaching in the field will help future managers and organization leaders cope with the stress and anxiety and sometimes rancor that organizations and, indeed, all of us, have been experiencing given the political and economic conditions of the past few years.

References

[1] Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2011). Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (First edition published in 1995.)

[2] Mitroff, Ian, & Denton, Elizabeth A. (1999). A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace, 1st Edition. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

[3] Tischler, Len, Biberman, Jerry, & Altman, Yochanan. (2007). “A model for researching about spirituality in organizations.” The Business Renaissance Quarterly, 2 (2), 23-39.

[4] Biberman, Jerry, & Tischler, Len (eds.). (2008). Spirituality in business: theory, practice, and future directions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

[5] Wilber, Ken. (2006). Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Shambala Publications.

[6] Biberman & Tischler (2008).

[7] Biberman, Jerry. (2013). Quo vadis: Where are we and where are we going? In Neal, Judi (Ed.) Handbook of faith and spirituality in the workplace: Emerging research and practice. New York: Springer, pp. 713-716.

[8] Biberman, Jerry. (2014.) Spirituality in organizations: Parallels with spirituality in other disciplines—Toward a coherent theory. In Hense, Elisabeth, Jespers, Frans, and Nissen, Peter (Eds.) Present day spiritualities: Contrasts and overlaps. Lieden, the Netherlands: Brill, pp. 103-112.

[9] Young, John, & Biberman, Jerry. (2016). Book review [Review of the book The Postconventional Personality: Assessing, Researching, and Theorizing Higher Development, edited by Angela H. Pfaffenberger, Paul W. Marko, and Allan Combs. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2011, paperback, ISBN 978-1-4384] Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, 13 (2), p. 167-172.

[10] Fry, Louis W. (2008). Spiritual Leadership: State-of-the-art and Future Directions for Theory, Research, and Practice. In Biberman, Jerry, and Tischler, Len (eds.) Spirituality in business: theory, practice, and future directions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 106-124.

[11] Beck, Don Edward, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

[12] Marques, Joan, Dhiman, Satinder, & Biberman, Jerry (eds.). (2011). Stories to tell your students: Transforming toward organizational growth. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.

[13] Marques, Joan, Dhiman, Satinder, & Biberman, Jerry (eds.). (2011). Managing in the twenty-first century: transforming toward mutual growth. New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.

[14] Marques, Joan, Dhiman, Satinder, & Biberman, Jerry (eds.). (2012). Teaching leadership and organizational behavior through humor: Laughter is the best teacher.  New York:  Palgrave MacMillan.

[15] Marques, Dhiman, & Biberman, (2011).

Author of the article
Jerry Biberman, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Scranton
Jerry Biberman, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Scranton

Jerry Biberman, PhD was a Professor of Management and retired from full time teaching in 2012. For 12 years he served as Chair of the Management/Marketing Department at the University of Scranton. He obtained his MS, MA and PhD from Temple University. Biberman has co-edited several books and has published many articles in the areas of work and spirituality and on organizational behavior teaching. He also served as founding co-editor of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, and has co-edited several special editions on work and spirituality for the Journal of Organizational Change Management. He was a founder and first chair of the Management, Spirituality and Religion interest group of the Academy of Management. In 1999, Biberman was the recipient of the first University of Scranton Kania School of Management Scholarly achievement award. He received the award a second time in 2003. In 2010 he received the Provost Award for Excellence in Integrating Mission and Justice into the Curriculum.

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