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Organisational Spirituality: Exploring and re-purposing identity in complex organisational systems

Deon Cloete, PhD candidate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) in Cape Town, South Africa

We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking – Richard Rohr


This study presents an alternative view of what it means to be human in organisational management systems. It radically challenges and calls us to re-think the human condition in the context of organisations. It suggests a reconfiguring of how we perceive ourselves as human in relation to reality, and how we come to the knowledge thereof. The motivation of the study is to re-purpose and explore the human condition and its connection to reality in complex organisational management systems. It challenges the current pervading paradigm that reduces our understanding of reality to that which is of the same, comfortable and makes us feel safe (materialistic-mechanistic paradigm). The research demands that we re-think what it means to be human, but from a different or extended mode of thinking exemplified in co-operative inquiry research methodology. The participatory worldview of co-operative inquiry and its extended mode of knowing should not only translate to new sources of doing, but also include the primacy of new ways of being in the world: a transformation of being.


The research suggests that a fundamental shift should occur in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. It requires that new patterns of thought and beliefs should emerge that will transform our experience, our thinking and our action. Although we have made enormous strides in our material welfare and control of our lives, we are at the same time confronted with the costs of this progress - in ecological devastation, human and social fragmentation, and spiritual impoverishment. Globalisation has highlighted various current crises and challenges faced by organisations of which the crisis of consciousness development (the spiritual crisis) has been researched the least.

My idea of the problem of how we organise knowledge on being human has been influenced by complexities thinking: the praxis of applied complexity science. Our reality is shaped in a world with an ever-increasing creation and transmission of new data, new information, and new events: our world today is subsumed by complexity. Human existence is more and more interwoven (complex). What is woven together cannot just be torn apart without losing the connection, the interrelationships, the interactions and what is emergent. The notion of 'complexity' is currently subject to a number of interpretations and we should distinguish within the theoretical spectrum of complexity science between restricted complexity and general complexity. Restricted complexity recognises complexity - by decomplexifying it - thereby avoiding the fundamental problem of complexity which is epistemological, cognitive and paradigmatic. General complexity requires a revisiting of the way we know what we know, and is more interested in how knowledge is organised itself, as opposed to reductionist notions as typified by classical science. A rigorous understanding of complexity is one that denies both total holism and total reductionism simultaneously; while still acknowledging that any description of a complex system necessarily performs some reduction of reality. Complexities thinking are primarily concerned with presenting new ways of understanding reality and what it means to be. It also rejects traditional science-based notions of how we come to know and apply it through universal knowledge, experimental control, determinism and a linear logic of causal explanation. It is this generalised notion of complexity - that maintains a critical position - that underlies this study. Critical complexity has the potential to disarm the animosities formed by opposing paradigms, for example, reductionism versus holism, without uniting them into a grand unifying truth.

Critical complexity (CC)
presents an avenue of inquiry that re-establishes the quality of being in the world. It is concerned with how to re-purpose nature as a source of meaning and orientation. It emphasises a re-discovery of our connectedness with nature and how we are shaped as human beings in this dynamic relation to the whole and the parts. CC suggests that our models reflect the reality of complexity and invites us to continually re-visit these models in a new light in order to re-vision new futures. CC challenges our mechanistic-materialistic assumptions of reality and attempt to bridge our tendency to apply universalistic-deterministic ways of thinking to ways of knowing.

The notion of identity refers to questions regarding who we are in relation to other/Other (that which is different). CC allows us a specific lens to deeply reflect on these individual-organisational identities (whole-part construct) and behaviours that reveals the quality of our being human. Reflexive questions regarding how we organise knowledge are not often asked in the management sciences because they seem to be more philosophical of nature and require an in-depth look at our current underlying choices. Organisational development (OD) practitioners have a unique opportunity and position within organisations as change facilitators/agents. The focus of the research on OD practitioners is because of the way they are exposed to the vulnerabilities and positions of power organisations might endure. They have open access to the organisational identity, needs, expectations and role functions. My assumption is that OD practitioners and organisations do not apply differing ways of knowing within the dynamic networks and relations of identity i.e. the way in which people orientate themselves in different situations and reveal a specific stance, aptitude and attitude towards different crises and decisions to be made. OD practitioners should be equipped to: facilitate novel ways of what is means to be human; foster possibilities that ensure continual learning; show actions that respect differences and modes of thinking that could resist dehumanising strategies.

The research questions are: (i) who am I in the workplace or what is the quality of self-consciousness?; (ii) how do I respond and perform in the workplace or what is the quality of awareness regarding my needs, expectations and role functions); (iii) what keeps me (individual-organisational) going and to what do I commit myself in the workplace or what is the quality of purposefulness as revealed in my norms, values, belief systems, world views and paradigms); (iv) what shapes individual-organisational spirituality and influences the quality of decision making / life choices or what is the quality of contextual issues embedded in the culture). The aim of the research is to explore what is meant by organisational spirituality by applying critical complexities thinking approach within complex organisational systems collaboratively with OD practitioners in order to re-purpose identity formation praxis through co-operative inquiry research methodology. The objectives of the research are: (i) to explore what is meant by organisational spirituality; (ii) re-purposing organisational identity praxis; (iii) developing OD praxis regarding spiritual identity formation in organisations.

The research strategy

Co-operative inquiry (CI) presents a complementary approach to critical complexity as a methodology. The participatory worldview of co-operative inquiry with its ontological notion of reality as subjective-objective involves and includes an extended epistemology. As human beings we participate in and articulate our world in at least four interdependent ways: experiential, presentational, propositional and practical. These four forms of knowing can be seen as aspects of human sense-making modalities through which we perceive our world and co-create our realities. CI is characterised by involving all the subjects as fully as possible as co-researchers in all research decisions - about both content and method - taken in the reflection phases. There is intentional interplay between reflection and making sense on the one hand, and experience and action on the other.

Research actualisation

The selection and invitation of co-participants took place over a period of about five months where I presented the research proposal to various interest groups. The main contribution of the research is found in the various transformations of being of the six OD practitioners that partakes in this co-inquiry. They co-initiated, co-sensed, co-presenced, co-created and co-evolved in the co-formulation of OD praxis heuristics regarding spiritual identity.

Preliminary results

The research is currently in its final stage of action and reflection. The co-inquirers are in the process of finalising co-created OD praxis heuristics that could guide the quality of being, doing and learning with self, client and organisation.  The co-inquirers identified certain patterns in OD praxis and are reflected in a non-linear process through the: Pre-forming Phase (Pre-engagement); Informing Phase (Initial Engagement); Exploring Phase (Emergent Engagement); Transforming Phase (Intimate Engagement) and a Meta-transformation Phase (Whole-Part Engagement). All of these phases play out on differing non-linear processes and can be seen on different dimensions simultaneously through the quality of our: self-awareness or the intrapersonal (facilitator-self space); the other-awareness or interpersonal (facilitator-client space) and the system-awareness or transpersonal (facilitator-organisation space).

Some key patterns and themes that we co-sensed, co-created and are co-evolving in are:

·       That our being-functions (beingness) are more fundamental than our organisational skills (doing-functions) and therefore that our doing-functions (skills, strategies) are not decisive for whom we are as organisations in the workplace (our identity).

·       That the quality of our spiritual-identity (the integrating and re-self-organising principle) is what gives direction to our decisions, the reason for our motivations, and what determines the appropriateness of our responsibilities, norms and values which determine goal setting (purposefulness). It designates a specific stance in life at work.

·       That the quality of our spiritual-identity offers a mode of sustainable hope so that individuals/organisations are not merely dependent on temporary functional need-fulfilment (materialist-mechanistic worldview) or mere activism regarding human rights, but also reveals a kind of identity that helps them to discover meaning and a sense of belonging in organisational life.

·       That organisational spirituality reflects a network of social systems and power-vulnerability structures. It designates a qualitative stance in life at work.

·       That the quality of our identity denotes the quality of positions (attitudes, aptitudes, being-functions) within the dynamics of networking and systemic relationships.

·       That identity as organisational spirituality reveals our understandings (ideatic forms - i.e. schemata of interpretation, belief systems, norms, values, worldviews) underlying current organisational praxis and are key to change processes. 

·       That an in-depth understanding of the complexity of identity within the workplace equips OD practitioners to facilitate the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of being human in the dynamics of organisational demands.

·       That the quality of our spirituality is revealed between the tension of identity and that which is different (i.e. the complexities of being and doing functions within the context of the identity position). A fundamental openness to harvest the resourcefulness of diversity essential in continual learning and adaptive organisations.

Concluding remarks


Once we embrace the complexity of our identity and how it reveals our organisational spirituality OD practitioners can grow in the quality of their way of being (the art of business) whereby alternative conceptions of the role of organisations in economics, business, society and the development of human consciousness and wholeness can become praxis.