Gods in the Workplace: Theology of Management, Part II

It may be possible for each manager to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his employee. The load, or weight, or burden of my employee’s glory should be laid daily on my back.  

 (paraphrase of an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ Weight of Glory)

In part one of this series I argued that by addressing itself primarily to “the employee,” the faith and work movement pursues an incomplete strategy. An employee coming to understand she has dignity as a worker is insufficient if problematic structural aspects of her job are left without being challenged.

Is there value in her realization of dignity? Yes, of course. But there is potential for even greater outcomes if the faith and work community also attends to the design of her job description, the tone of her workplace culture, the motivations and behaviors of her manager, the content of the metrics by which she is evaluated, and the managerial assumptions and beliefs that drive these elements—that is, the structural, interpersonal and cultural circumstances in which she attempts her work.

Put another way, the faith and work community ought to attend to “the workplace” from the bottom up and from the top down. The community will make its greatest contributions if it can speak warm affirmation and prophetic challenge both to the employee and to the manager (not to mention to the owner, the board, and various other constituents). Without this dual focus, the faith and work community will be unable to articulate a full “Gospel of work.”

The content of these dual messages, those addressed to employees and those addressed to managers, will overlap to some degree, but will also have key differences. Thus the need for a theology of management in addition to our theology of work. And while I’m nowhere close to offering a systematized theology of management, I do have several ideas that I think would need to be part of such a theology. Here they are.

The centrality of employees and their work. A Christian theology of management needs to get its anthropology right. In his encyclical Laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II observed in 1981 that employers often make a subtle but critical mistake vis a vis their employees—they operate as if employees are instruments. Referring to employees as “human resources” and thinking of employees’ labor as a commodity that can be bought and sold might betray the nuanced ways in which we make the same error today.

Against this anthropological mistake, he gently but firmly challenges this conceptualization with what he suggests is a more Biblical notion: employees are agents, not instruments or resources: “He alone [the employee]—independent of the work he does, ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator.” John Paul II goes on to root this view in the rich soil of Genesis, in God’s command to the first humans to subdue the earth. Work is something people do, so when we think of companies “doing work,” we should recognize that we anthropomorphize—in the end, the “work” of these organizations is derivative of the work that actual people carry out.

Mutual responsibility. Closely connected is the notion of mutual responsibility, the idea that wherever there is a relationship the involved parties are responsible to each other. While the nature of these responsibilities varies with the relationship (I am responsible in substantial ways to my wife and she to me; responsible in other ways to my employer to perform my job duties; and responsible in yet other ways to give respect, civility, etc. to the stranger I meet on the sidewalk), the key point is that responsibility often runs two ways.

Where the responsibility of the employee to the manager is clear, the responsibility of the manager to the employee should also be emphasized. According to this principle, managers are not merely accountable “up” to their bosses, but also “down” to their employees, to protect them from exploitation, to attend to their development and provide the resources they need for their work. And while many managers recognize their responsibilities toward their employees, it is still important that we root our practices in firm theological ground.

Managerial gratitude. Rooted in their theology of management and extending into their practice of management, managers should be characterized by their gratitude. In his sermon The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes “you have never met a mere mortal.” (There are a lot of managers out there who ought to let this reality sink in). Lewis goes on: “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” And then “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor [and I will add, your employee] is the holiest object presented to your senses.” What difference might these observations make it they were allowed to confront the cultural approaches to which we are accustomed?

Managers should feel dumbfounded (in a good way) and grateful most of the time—immortals work for these managers every day, pouring out their creative energy on behalf of the company’s mission and goals! This is actually where the message “all work has dignity” has one of its most astounding implications. How could a paycheck ever really be sufficient to repay this godlike offering? I think any manager worth his or her salt will see what I mean, acknowledging that in a sense, a paycheck is not sufficient to compensate employees for their work. Yes, the paycheck should be fair, but managers should also be amazed and grateful that these eternal beings keep stooping to the work.

Our culture advances a prevailing administrative logic that employees are instruments, and that the key point about their labor is that it is a commodity to be bought and sold. What if, instead of accepting these cultural assumptions without examination, the faith and work community developed a theology and approach to management anchored in the unchanging fact that employees are agents of their work and that they possess nearly unspeakable glory given them by God?

And what better time than now to address these issues, as the workplace is confronted with threats of further automation, shifting relationships between employer and employee, and increasing social and economic stratification? In these choppy waters, the faith and work community can step up to the challenge and speak broadly and confidently to employees and managers who are ready to listen.

 

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