Managers are like small gods—they have the power to create or destroy worlds.
I propose that the Christian faith and work community needs a theology of management to go with its theology of work.
One of my dear friends has been nearly oppressed at work for several years. One day he was visibly frustrated by some workplace circumstance, and I had the opportunity to offer support, but it turns out I didn’t know what to say. What I’d learned in faith and work conversations failed me in that moment. That’s because “Your work has dignity” was not the problem. He knew the work he was doing was important—even valued by God. The problem turned out to be his managers and the workplace culture they engendered.
The generalizable truth in the story is this: millions of people experience their work as drudgery, but changing their theological understanding of the meaning of work isn’t sufficient to change the pain they experience at work because the pain is circumstantial. It comes to the worker from outside of the worker: from bosses, coworkers, dysfunctional teams, unrealistic expectations, and workplace malpractice.
As far as I can tell, our faith and work community addresses itself more or less mostly to the employee (the doer of a job) or to the CEO (the maker and champion of a vision). But so far, we have largely neglected bringing the wisdom of the faith and work movement to questions distinctively related to the massive middle. As a movement, we’ve published countless books and articles and given countless talks mostly addressed to those who work and to those who lead, leaving a blind spot hovering over those who translate the vision from the CEO above into expectations, job descriptions, and workflows for the workers below.
And yet the topic is of critical importance. Think of the colossal influence managers generally have over their employees. Managers are like small gods—they have the power to create or destroy workplace worlds, defining reality for their employees, attending to their teams or ignoring them. They can respect or disrespect their employees. They can advocate for them or neglect them or even degrade them.
And all of these decisions will create the world in which their employees work, a world in which full-time employees will spend nearly half of their waking hours. The workplace worlds (the subcultures within an organization) created and destroyed by managers, the worlds all of these employees inhabit, are powerful in their lives, helping them stand taller, or weighing them down, enhancing life or draining it.
Consider the presence of multiple subcultures in any given company, non-profit or other complex organization. Any middle- to large-sized institution organized hierarchically has executive leadership at the top, multiple divisions within the organization—each with their own subculture—and perhaps multiple departments within each division, each with their own distinctive ethos as well. The experience employees with have of their work will differ, sometimes dramatically, from department to department, and here we come to the point: this variety of experiences is not merely a reflection of diverse functions, but is the outcome of the influence of different managers, each applying their own interpretation of our larger mission, and their own set of values.
But our theology of work hasn’t paid enough attention to the distinctive property of management: the authority of managers over employees. Almost all recent faith and work messages I’ve run across can be boiled down into three basic tenets:
- All (ethical) work has innate dignity – think about our favorite problem to attack, the “sacred/secular divide,” about our Genesis 1-2 discussions, and about the guidance we like offering pastors vis a vis their congregants’ work.
- Work is infected by the fall – think about our Genesis 3 discussions.
- Work changes the world – think about the discussions we have around work and God’s Kingdom, around the power of business to create value, and around work and human flourishing.
Even where we have paid attention to ethics, the ethical problems considered still seem to be focused at the top and bottom of the organization.
In light of the relative neglect of this critical topic, I propose that the Christian faith and work community needs a theology of management to go with its theology of work. The central message of the movement, “all work has dignity,” needs to be paired with another message: “all work should be treated with dignity.” And at the very front of the front lines for treating work and workers with dignity are managers.
What does it benefit an employee if we insist on the dignity of his or her work and then send him or her into a workplace world where:
- his contribution is taken for granted
- her achievements are appropriated and credited to someone else
- he is passed over for promotion even though he has greater expertise and dedication than his colleagues
- her gender puts her at a disadvantage because she’s coming back to work after a time out of the workforce
- he is a minority applicant who isn’t called back because “he might not fit with the culture”
The all work has dignity message lands with a bit of a thud unless we say something about the world managers build or fail to build around their employees as well.
In the next article in this series, I will propose building blocks that could be used to erect such a theology of management and consider the differences between theology of work and this possible theology of management. I’m going to suggest that where we’ve built our theology of work around themes of dignity and participation, we should now build our theology of management around themes of gratitude and guidance.