Relieving Spiritual Poverty in Our Corporations

For three years during the mid-1980s, I took a hiatus from my corporate consulting practice to work in Somalia, The Sudan, and Ethiopia under the auspices of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the governments of those countries. The work was financially supported by the U.S. government and delivered through nongovernmental organizations. In each of the projects, my work was focused on assisting others in developing managerial skills and increasing creativity and collaboration among all of the agencies and programs working with refugees.

Dateline Somalia

Though it was early morning, the day was already hot. The sun was shining in the way that bleaches everything. Everything, that is, except for the colors created by dresses and head wraps of women who gathered to draw water from the well. As far as I could see there were igloo-shaped huts, thousands upon thousands of them, made from materials of the desert and from the plastic and burlap in which food had arrived. The camp commander invited me into the hut that served as his office and asked me to be seated. My Somali coworkers and the elders who followed me in squatted. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to look around. There were about fifteen of us and one bench, upon which I sat. The floor was hardened earth. As I assessed my surroundings, I began to realize that the bench had been brought in from somewhere especially for me. I was aware that these people were managing a refugee camp that had a fluctuating population which was currently in the range of 40,000 people. And yet here I was in the camp commander’s office — no desks, no paper, no filing cabinets, no telephones, no secretaries, no pens or pencils, no procedure manuals, no clocks, no anything!

Now, more than ever, I wondered what I was doing here. I felt humbled to the very marrow of my bones. How presumptuous of me! What could I possibly bring to this party? I did not speak either Oromo or Somali. I did not understand the cultures, let alone the clash of cultures! What I understood about management and organization consulting, and what I considered useful at home, clearly was not going to be particularly useful in this situation. In addition to the fear and anxiety I had experienced during my first weeks in Somalia, and the sense of isolation I felt without my network, my reputation, my books and familiar surroundings to lean on, I was now in the pit of despair. It all seemed so huge and overwhelming and hopeless. Why bother?

As I look back, I know I made a useful contribution. But more importantly, my time in Africa made a priceless, immeasurable contribution to me. My personal experience of having nothing to draw on except what’s inside of me and my opportunity to witness others drawing on themselves in the same way reinforced my sense that wisdom and other needed resources are within each of us, waiting to be called out. This inner wisdom can lead us through apparently impossible circumstances. The learnings I gained through working in the famine and war stricken regions of Africa have become the basis for much of my work in corporations.

Striking Similarities Between Corporations and Refugee Camps

Having become vividly aware of the obvious differences between corporate businesses and refugee camps, I was amazed to recognize striking similarities between them. My experiences in the world of international relief and development have become a useful analogy for me to see that I am still working with poverty, and I am still encouraging myself and others to draw out and rely on the deep wisdom inside of us.

In refugee camps, physical poverty is at its starkest. Most of us have seen the pictures on TV — the ones that are so difficult to watch — of dying children with distended bellies, toothpick limbs, and pleading eyes. People arrive in the camps with nothing and are completely dependent on others for their very lives. That is why they come. It is their one known means of staying alive. It is poverty on the physical level.

In many corporations, poverty also exists. It is “spiritual poverty” at its starkest. For large numbers of people the workplace occupies a majority of their waking hours, and for many, it is the most important place in their lives. It is where they seek meaning and purpose. We in the corporate setting tend to believe that we are supposed to check our deepest personal selves — our inner lives, our soul’s development — at the door of the workplace, at least publicly. This assumption prevents us from bringing some of the most powerful and creative parts of ourselves to our jobs. In corporations, fear, anxiety, a sense of isolation, apathy, and despair are the results of spiritual poverty, and they are similar to the disease, starvation, and death in refugee camps.

It is easy for us to see the impact of physical poverty if we choose to look. It ravages the faces and bodies of people who experience it. Spiritual poverty is not necessarily as easy to see or recognize. We live with it daily in our corporations and we become numb to it. What we do see and feel we don’t talk about. When we realize what we are missing, feelings deeper than fear and anxiety — feelings of grief and terror — come to the surface. “What have I missed by not noticing my feelings at work all these years?” and “What if I can’t get back in touch?” or “What if I take a risk and get punished?”


Much is being said these days about the power of relationship in the workplace. The phrases used are “building teams,” “partnerships,” and “alliances,” both within and beyond the boundaries of organizations. The belief is that this power of relationship is an untapped resource for businesses, a resource that can provide a competitive edge. This is true. But it is not relationship itself that is the core possibility. Relationship is the result. It is the result of authenticity. And authenticity is the result of tapping the spiritual well, the wisdom within. Therefore, the actual competitive edge is in consciously addressing conditions that result in spiritual poverty within each individual.

So what do we do? We actually are already doing a lot — from quality circles to employee involvement, from valuing diversity to building community, from participation to empowerment. Call them what you will, all of these initiatives request and require people to bring more of themselves to work — to draw more from within, to be more authentic. By embarking on these initiatives we provide the means of countering spiritual poverty within the business context.

A Model for Spiritual Relief and Development

The model of relief and development in the world at large provides a road map for spiritual relief and development in organizations. There are several aspects to the process of providing relief, whether physical or spiritual. First, we must acknowledge the emergency — no matter how painful — and provide relief in order to minimize further damage. We must also recognize the hazards of the relief process. Relief treats symptoms but not systemic causes. It creates dependency and counterdependency and establishes expectations that cannot be maintained over time. There is always the aftermath experience of the emergency to be tended. Relief is a critical and essential step in a process, but it is insufficient and incomplete in and of itself. In order to overcome the hazards, more complete development processes are required. Relief is preparation for a more complete process of development.

Acknowledge The Emergency and Provide Relief

The drive across the Sudanese desert to the area of the refugee camps had taken all day. I had seen carcass after carcass of cows and camels and goats along the road, having dropped in their tracks. When we arrived at the refugee camp, a government official told me that satellite photos were being taken of the movements of people. He said, “Hundreds of thousands of people are walking in our direction. We have to be as ready as we can to receive them. Hundreds are arriving here every day. All of our food and water must be trucked in. The desert nights are cold and we don’t have enough blankets. Doctors and nurses are working around the clock.”

I heard the words, but it wasn’t until later than night, when I was in the nearby town, that I understood. Everywhere there were people walking. It was as though something special was soon to occur. But I knew different. I knew this walking meant that people had lost their homes, that they were hungry, that many were ill and some were dying. Returning to the camp, I understood even better. I saw people waiting everywhere, hoping to get in through the gate when it opened in the morning.

Given these circumstances, the principle of triage underlies the actions of people. Triage can be characterized as “Save as many lives as you can. Some people will die. So be it. Locate and treat the ones you think have the best chance at staying alive. Just do what you have to do to get the job done. We’ll regroup when this emergency is over.”

During an emergency stage in corporate organizations all parts of the system experience tremendous stress. The experience of triage results in people working harder, for longer hours, with fewer resources available and more perfection expected than ever before. People are aware that their very jobs and livelihood are at stake. Groups have goals that stretch them beyond what seems like reality. Businesses are fighting for profitability, fighting to stay in business.

The beliefs, norms, and expectations of organizations have caused many people to deprive themselves of spiritual food. In reality, feeding ourselves spiritually at work is essential to our survival. The consequences of becoming spiritually impoverished are overwhelming. Fear, anxiety, isolation, apathy, and despair claim significant amounts of creative energy. When these conditions exist, people are often afraid of being exposed as inadequate — and they are. They are malnourished as a result of spiritual poverty.

Hazards of the Relief Process

Relief treats symptoms but not systemic causes. I stood to the side and watched as people waited to collect their weekly rations of rice, oil, and powdered milk. The relief workers and refugees who worked with them were shouting to each other, making sure every station was covered, knowing that once they began the routine morning distribution process, there’d be no stopping until everyone who came received the food they had come for.

In contrast to months earlier, these people now had a source of food and water, they had shelter, and they had some medical support. In most of them, I witnessed a significant improvement in their health — a return of life force, but not necessarily well-being or vitality. Their basic needs were being met but the future was uncertain.

Relief is temporary. It does not have staying power. I found my work in Africa full of meaning. I also was aware that, by providing the direct services of relief, nothing about the big picture was changing. We were saving people’s lives — but only as long as the food continued to arrive.

To draw a corporate comparison, I was called in on an emergency basis to work with a group where there was a lot of conflict and people wanted their manager fired. Everyone’s patience was extremely short all the way up to the vice president. He entertained the possibility of cutting the entire group out of the organization and purchasing the services from outside contractors. Through a team-building intervention we were able to restore enough hope to the group that they could proceed with their work. But the intervention was entirely for the purpose of relief — not development. The relief served only as a prelude to further development. As we got beneath the personal conflicts, the issues that surfaced were not personal but rather, they were organizational. They had to do with how work was organized, with duplications and gaps, with how employees in this group were being measured differently than other groups, and with how the larger organization unknowingly thwarted them as they attempted to get their jobs done. All of these issues were long-term development opportunities.

Beneath the symptoms of relationship issues that relief addresses there will always be development opportunities. If the immediate symptoms can be treated and relieved and the context can be enlarged enough to identify underlying causes, a group that may have thought its life was over can achieve excellence in the long term.

Relief creates dependency and counter-dependency. I arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, in the summer of 1970, right during the height of the hijackings by Palestinian terrorists. At the time, I just couldn’t comprehend what would prompt people my age to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others by blowing up airplanes. A Palestinian friend told me, “Please understand, people who are twenty years old now have spent their entire lives in these camps. They have no sense of a better future for themselves. They hear their parents speak of the lives they once had. These stories tell of lives that were modest — a home, a donkey, some goats, perhaps an orchard. Nothing more. But that was enough to provide meaning and dignity to their lives.”

Relief creates dependency. People in poverty become dependent upon others for their existence. There is a point — when death is the alternative — at which this dependency is important. It supports people through the weakness that resulted from their poverty. It allows people to glimpse light through their hopelessness and despair. But if the dependency looks as though it will be permanent, the hopelessness and despair return — now accompanied by low self-respect, loss of meaning, and anger at the source of the relief.

I had a very painful experience with this hazard. While working in a very exciting, fast paced, innovative organization, I was asked to assist cross-functional teams in becoming more effective. People in the organization were pleased with the results. I became more and more involved with the organization. I recognized the hazard of dependency and periodically I would attempt to disengage. I would hear, “You can’t just fire yourself. It’s important that you not leave us now. There’s still a lot for you to do. We’ll know when the time is right.” I stayed on. And I stayed on. And then, when I became heavily engaged in the culture of the organization, something began to change — slowly at first, and then more and more. A few people became angry. I was left out of situations where I had been included before. They were trying to disengage me, and now I didn’t want to go. I remember the lonely pit in my stomach. What had initially been dependency on their part had become counter-dependency. I was now dependent upon them.

The dependency and counter-dependency issues in organizations are enormous. We have so much learning to do about what is helpful and what is not, about when dependency is useful and when it is not, and about empowerment, control, responsibility, and accountability. Therefore, it is important to distinguish the initial dependency generated by relief that allows for the possibility of further development from the dependencies that rob people of their opportunities to be empowered and self-sufficient.

Relief establishes expectations that cannot be maintained over time. On a visit to Asmara, I spent a morning with a monk of the Ethiopian Catholic Church who was managing food distribution in the region. In his office there was a blackboard, and on the blackboard was a grid. Across the top were the months of the year, and down the side were the names of villages in this region. In the boxes were numbers. I asked him to explain it to me. He said that it reflected the amount of food that was being distributed. It was now February. I noticed that beginning with April and onward several of the boxes that previously had held numbers like 10,000 and 20,000 and 40,000 now had an X through them. Again I asked him to explain. He told me that beginning in April the Poles would be taking back the helicopters they had lent to the effort. They had other needs for the helicopters. And the villages with an X through them were villages which were basically inaccessible except by air due to the war that was going on.

I was appalled and deeply saddened. “What will happen?” I asked. “Those people have no more food and no more ability to get food than they did before. Isn’t that true?”

“Yes,” he responded as he sighed. “The world’s attention has shifted to other matters such that people think the drought and famine have passed.”

This story corresponds to what happens in organizations when resources become scarce. Efforts that provide spiritual food such as skills training that can help people be more effective and tools that assist people to be more efficient, are often cut back or cut out altogether. “Headcount” (what an incredible term!) is reduced and jobs that were once reasonable become overwhelming.

When we develop expectations, it is very difficult to adjust to having them reduced. “Fine — that merely requires an attitude adjustment,” you might say. But there’s more here. What is being reduced is food for the spirit. Food for the spirit is what allows us to do our best and to be proud of what we do. The people in the Ethiopian village were soon to discover that no more food would be arriving for them. They would either die or leave the village they loved. The same phenomenon occurs in corporations. When food for the spirit is cut off, many people either die on the job or leave the business community they love.

Develop New Capabilities During the Aftermath

Often, during triage, there can be a collective sense of self-recrimination on the part of those offering to provide relief at the apparent flaws in a relief operation.  People begin to notice things like redundancy and waste.  It sounds like, “I can’t believe this organization could be so disorganized. We need better systems!” Yet, given that agreement of “Just do what needs to be done,” as a result of the requirements of the emergency situation, redundancy and waste are givens. To think that, at the height of an emergency, systems can be put into place that could ever adequately address the multitude of variables that surface is unrealistic. An emergency situation is initially out of control — by definition.

It is important to know that when the self-recrimination begins to appear, it is simply the most appropriate time to realize that the emergency is over and the relief has been provided. Now it is time to shift to long-term development. It is time to look at what systems, designs, rituals will best help the business operate optimally in this new world resulting from the changes that occurred during the emergency.

In addition, there is a collective grief at the loss of a certain spirit and feeling of community that was present during the emergency, brought out because of the crisis. We hear it as “Things just aren’t like they used to be. The team spirit, the way we pulled together, is gone. Nobody cares anymore.” The unrealistic expectation is that the kind of community that is created through crisis will carry forth beyond the emergency. As Scott Peck writes in The Different Drum, community can be created in times other than crisis. But to do that requires conscious choice and deliberate hard work.


The effects of spiritual poverty are more subtle than the effects of physical poverty but they are equally real and debilitating. The losses resulting from the wasting of our spirits, while not as physically apparent as the wasting of our bodies, are greater than we can imagine. Thus, while relief is critical and essential, it is not sufficient to counteract the effects of poverty — neither the refugee’s physical poverty nor the corporate employees’ spiritual poverty. The intention of relief is to provide the refugee and the corporate employees with renewed capability. This capability, in both cases, allows us to take the step to the next stage — that of development.

The desired results of international development are self-sufficiency of the individuals and communities, and sustainability of the planetary system. Parallel results in the business context are empowered individuals, teams that are self-managed, and increased profitability of the business system. Initiatives — whether building a learning organization, valuing diversity, or undertaking collaborative organization design — that support the development of the human spirit reflect organizational opportunities for people to bring more of who they are to the workplace.

Whether it is relief or development that is required, it is important to remember that it is not relationship itself that is the core possibility. Relationship is the result — the result of authenticity. Authenticity is the result of tapping the spiritual well, the wisdom within. Therefore, the actual competitive edge lies in consciously addressing conditions that result in spiritual poverty within each individual.

The need for relief must be attended to before development can be truly successful. Providing relief of fear, anxiety, isolation, apathy, and despair in organizations is a means of preparing ourselves for fuller development.

When we are more authentic, we are capable of creating new solutions and opportunities, of connecting more fully and deeply with each other, of taking more responsibility for the well-being of our businesses, and of becoming more awake to the world in which we live.

Published in The New Business of Business: Sharing Responsibility for a Positive Global Future, ed. by Willis Harman and Maya Porter, Berrett-Koehler, 1997.

Originally appeared as “Corporate Poverty” in When the Canary Stops Singing: Women’s Perspectives on Transforming Business, ed. by Pat Barrentine, Berrett-Koehler, 1993.

This entry was posted in Published Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.