Sixth Century Wisdom for 21st Century Changemasters

Despite a strong U.S. economy, unsettled change continues to bombard us. Mega-mergers boggle the mind with the endless zeros streaming behind a behemoth's financial size. We gasp at the number of employees who will be cast off from a consolidated giant. We see plant closures and layoffs in everything from clothing manufacturing to banking. Overnight web companies turn almost under-age youth into millionaires and executives at age 40 are left scratching their heads. Technology shifts overnight. Medical research makes DNA a poster child for both dreams and nightmares. There's so much, so fast. Despite statistics that put this as the lowest employment rate in decades, there's pain and inaccuracy behind these cold numbers. And in all of this, we're work more but feeling as if we're earning less. There's too much to do and too little time. The cry echoed across business publications, employee surveys, human resource conferences, and on-line chat rooms is this: help us with chaos and balance! Within a 48-hour period, the headlines of the Los Angeles Times business section, a cover story in the latest issue of Fast Company, and the lead article from Fortune all proclaimed the same thing: workers want help with turbulent change and work/life balance. Read the January 11, 1999 edition FORTUNE and you'll uncover an array of work/life balance practices found in the top 100 companies to work for in America. Rather than give a category of these practices, this article is meant to offer some thoughts on how to deal with the second and equally challenging issue: how to deal with the chaos of unending change. In the sixth-century, the Rule of Saint Benedict asked monks to take vows of stability, conversatio, and obedience. Stability emphasized the need to work for the good of the community. Hence, all actions taken were in the context of "will this be of assistance to all rather than just a few?." Certainly this wisdom must be at the center of the top-ranked place to work in America, Synovus Financial whose employees say it has " a culture of the heart."

Obedience meant that once the monastery had made a decision (after a practice of hearing from the many members of the community), the monks followed. Independent thinking is good, to a point, in business but then the team has to move in the same direction. Of even more significance is the word conversatio, a term that is difficult to translate. Conversatio connotes a commitment to live faithfully in unsettled times and to keep one's life open. Such a paradox: remain settled; stay open to change! For the monks of the Middle Ages, living faithfully meant listening to an inner voice and responding to the call. For those of us in the 21st century business world, living faithfully also means listening and responding. Here's what we need to listen to: the stories we tell and those around us tell regarding an organization's consistent adherence to values shown by actions that match core beliefs. If there are no stories, there's trouble. It means listening with empathy and responsiveness to the needs of others within the organization. How well do you practice conversatio? Surely, at a time when we hear terms like "spirit" and "soul" more frequently in the workplace, the wisdom of a sixth century monk might help us all deal with the realities of a demanding world.

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