Soren Kierkegaard, philosopher supreme, considered spiritlessness one of the key human illnesses of our time. The spiritless person is dominated by a disconnect from responsibility to higher values*. While clearly having religious import to Kierkegaard, the observation also has a powerful analogy in the business world. I would suggest that a dimension of the problems underlying the ‘disengaged’ workforce is captured in Kierkegaard’s spiritlessness. That is, a disconnect between an employee’s understanding of their responsibility and the values of the organization leads to subpar results.
A few examples of the sickness of spiritlessness in the workplace:
Innocent Ignorance- “I only do ‘X'” mindset, which involves a poor understanding of what ‘X’ is. This comes about when task is thought more important than the intended outcome. (e.g., I heard once of a saleswoman that locked away promotional materials when people came by… because it was only her job to make sure the sales office had a certain volume of pamphlets on hand.” There is an innocence in the ignorance of “I only do X’ers” that makes it easier to push them towards understanding the value behind the why. I would suspect we’ve all been here and will all be here at times in our lives.
Unfelt Responsibility- “I’m sorry, but we won’t help you” This comes about when standard process came up short and the employee/manager has authority to assist, but won’t. See Manlius’ Jigger of Common Sense for an example here. The employee/manager doesn’t feel a responsibility to help and so refuses, even when it really ought to be their responsibility as in Manlius’ case.
Fear of Responsibility- In these cases the need to dynamically evaluate a situation is shirked and easy answers are chosen. This spiritlessness is particularly insidious in management, because it pairs well with authority and is often a reaction to potential threats to authority.
Of course, the real purpose of this concept in Kierkegaard’s philosophy was for the individual to come to grips with the implications that these higher values had on their choices with no easy outs or quick fixes. Business is rarely so broad in it’s pursuits, but organizations would do well to consider the ways in which these implications go unnoticed or are treated as trite aphorisms with no power to compel responsible action.
*Financial, societal, or personal, these are the systems behind the why of decisions an organization or person makes. For the sake of brevity they can also be construed as outcomes in certain circumstances.