#171 – “Leading Faithfully” Basics – How the World’s “Way” Wrecks “Work”

ESSENCE:  Because the key attributes of business in the “way” of the world do not align with a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community and human dignity, the “way” of the world often brings the inherent “beauty-potential” of business (solutions, prosperity and jobs) with an ugly cost of “wrecking” work as God designed it.  What we call business as usual represents organizational dynamics that lead to brokenness in workplaces and workers. The four key attributes of the “way” of business as usual that are at odds with the “way” of God’s Kingdom are profit as purpose, a scarcity assumption, a self-interest assumption, and a “Can We” culture. Leading faithfully through business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities is about restoring the wreckage–repairing creation and healing people by bringing “work” back to the purpose and blessing envisioned in Genesis.

“Leading Faithfully” Basics is about going back and re-examining the basics of leading faithfully through business a better way–business in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.

In our last Leading Faithfully Basics post (#169 – The “Way” of the World), we discussed the characteristics of what we call business as usual–organizational dynamics in the “way” of the kingdom of the world.  We also asserted that business as usual is at the root of the brokenness detailed in post #164 (The Brokenness of Business as Usual).  Those attributes lead to that brokenness by wrecking “work” as God designed it.

“Work” in God’s Design

If you are scratching your head and wondering how something inherently burdensome and bad like work can be “wrecked”, its probably because you are thinking of work as it has already been wrecked by the “way” of the world rather than “work” as it was designed by God.

It seems some otherwise Biblically-literate people mistakenly believe work is a curse that was imposed on humans because of the Fall (in our experience, they think of the Fall and God telling Adam that the ground would be cursed).  Certainly, many people who have never read the Bible believe that their work is a curse to be limited by “Work-Life Balance” and finally eliminated through retirement.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

In Genesis 2:15, we learn “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  Just as God creatively and productively worked to create all things, as God’s image-bearers it is in our very nature to be creative and productive workers.  This was BEFORE the Fall!

In the words of Tim Keller in his book Every Good Endeavor:

The book of Genesis leaves us with a striking truth—work was part of paradise. . . .  Again, the contrast with other religions and cultures could not be sharper. Work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was part of God’s perfect design for human life, because we were made in God’s image, and part of his glory and happiness is that he works, as does the Son of God.

In fact, as God’s image-bearers, people are more fully human when they are working in alignment with God’s purpose and design for work–when engaged in meaningful work that unleashes their God-given productivity and creativity in a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community and human dignity.

How the “Way” of Business as Usual Wrecks “Work”

Because the key attributes of business as usual do not align with a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community and human dignity, the “way” of the world often brings the inherent “beauty-potential” of business (solutions, prosperity and jobs) with an ugly cost of “wrecking” work.

In post #169 – The “Way” of the World, we explained the four key attributes of the “way” of business as usual that are at odds with the “way” of God’s Kingdom:

• Profit as Purpose

• A Scarcity Assumption

• A Self-Interest Assumption

• A “Can We” Culture

Because the fourth attribute is really a product of the other three, we will focus on Profit as Purpose, Scarcity and Self-Interest.  In considering the problems created by these attributes, Why Business Matters to God by Jeff Van Duzer was foundational to our thinking and we encourage everyone to get a copy.

“Profit” Wreckage.

Profit is not a problem, just like money is not the root of all evil. In fact, profit is necessary for a business operating in a market economy–without it you don’t have a sustainable organization or access to financial capital.  But (and it is a big “but”), Profit as Purpose is a BIG problem of business as usual, just like the love of money is the root of all evil.  Profit as Purpose creates three key problems that contribute to the wrecking of “work” and the brokenness of business as usual.

1. Profit as Purpose ignores other types of capital critical to business.  There is a truism attributed to John Hayes, former Chief Marketing Officer of American Express, “We tend to overvalue the things we can measure, and undervalue the things we cannot.”

In their book Completing Capitalism, the authors identify 4 types of capital needed for a business:  Natural, Human, Social and Financial. They argue that “business as usual” has been to focus only on Financial capital and largely ignore management of the other key components.  In part, this is historical going back to Milton Friedman at a time when financial capital was scarce.  In part, it is because we only manage to what we can measure, and business hasn’t had a good way to measure Natural, Human and Social capital usage.  As a result, these other forms of capital, including people, have been mismanaged through lack of management.

This singular focus takes on even more significance when considered in the light of Chris Houston’s observation (in his book For Goodness Sake) that focusing on only one variable in a complex system ignores Panarchy–a natural law governing complex systems.  Panarchy means that single variable optimization in a complex system eventually destabilizes the whole system, introducing an unpredictable entropy.

Is it any wonder that we are experiencing increasing protests against capitalism, the rise of support for socialism and the shift back toward a stakeholder model?

Professional golfer Rory McIlroy summed it up as: “Any de­ci­sion that you make in your life that’s purely for money usu­ally doesn’t end up go­ing the right way.”

2. Profit as Purpose works against Shalom.  In his book Why Business Matters to God, Van Duzer argues that a profit focus works against Shalom.  We agree.

At Integrous, we define Shalom as “an environment in which truth, beauty and goodness are valued and people and institutional cultures flourish by doing what God designed them to do in the way God designed them to do it–assisting in God’s restorative plan for His Kingdom by adding to its beauty.

When profitability is the key driver for a business, things like truth, beauty, goodness and the flourishing of people and institutional culture are valued and prioritized only to the extent they are seen as increasing the bottom line (or at least not hurting it).

Matthew 6:24 tells us “No one can serve two masters.”  If profit is the master, everything else ultimately must serve, and be subservient to, that master.

3. Profit as Purpose devalues human dignity.  When profit is the primary end of a business, people become a means–tools of production.  Treating people as a “means” is dehumanizing and creates much wreckage of “work”.

Managing a tool of production involves trying to use it more efficiently–maximizing its productivity and minimizing its cost.  Managing people efficiently as a tool of production can mean pushing them to be more productive while compensating them only as much as is necessary to prevent costly attrition and ensure satisfactory production, just as one would manage the supply of a key material input.

Managing people efficiently as a tool of production can also mean eliminating jobs when unnecessary for maximizing profitability and using the fear of job elimination as a tool to motivate and manipulate behavior.

Again drawing on Van Duzer, the pursuit of profit as the primary purpose of a business can lead to several other de-humanizing practices, such as overpaying senior management at the expense of others because they are perceived (particularly by themselves) as bringing more value, and taking excess profit at the expense of weaker parties in the value chain (e.g., suppliers, distributors and customers).

These practices can lead to a boundary-pushing “Can We” (rather than a “Should We”) culture in which practices such as dishonest or manipulative marketing and the use of leverage to squeeze suppliers become acceptable and expected.  Such practices can be dehumanizing by pressuring employees to bend or abandon their own ethical, moral or faith values.

“Scarcity” Wreckage – Devoid of Trust in God

The God of the Bible is a God of abundant provision, and a basic Biblical principle is that God can be trusted.  The Scarcity assumption is devoid of trust in a God of abundant provision.  This encourages manipulative and dehumanizing “survival” practices (many of which align with Profit as Purpose) such as:

• Reactive elimination of people in a downturn or in the face of uncertainty.

• Paying people the minimum necessary to prevent attrition.

• Overworking people.

• A boundary-pushing “Can We” (rather than a “Should We”) attitude in competing for customers, sales and resources.

• Competition among employees and competition for internal resources.

• Withholding of information and knowledge that could help others or the organization.

“Self-Interest” Wreckage – Does Not Prioritize Community

Another overarching Biblical principle is to love and care for others–we are to treat others as we would wish to be treated and as God has loved us.  In Genesis, humans were created in the image of a relational God.  The Self-Interest assumption does not prioritize or encourage caring relationships or community–it creates an environment based on competitive behavior and mistrust in which:

• Fear and competition are used to motivate and manipulate people to act in line with the organization’s primary purpose.

• Money is used to solve morale problems and as the primary tool for incentivizing desired behavior.

Because humans are relational beings created in the image of a relational God, such an environment is dehumanizing and contrary to God’s design for human interaction and for working together.

The book of Genesis leaves us with a striking truth—work was part of paradise. (Tim Keller)

Restoring the Wreckage

Every human being was uniquely and beautifully created in the image of our relational God, which means dignity and relationships matter.   Human relationships do not flourish, and human dignity is devalued, when:

• People recognize that the most important “WHY” driving the organization is ultimately profit and that they are just tools.

• People feel like they are just a means to that end–a replaceable cog in the machine to be manipulated and managed toward that end.

• Work relationships are hierarchical, adversarial and competitive, with management structures creating “WE/THEM” relationships and management techniques pitting people against each other.

• Work practices pressure people to act and treat others in ways contrary to the innate conscience and “first-order beliefs” (such as an innate sense that things like honesty, justice, love and the Golden Rule are “good”) placed in them by God.

Fred Rogers (aka “Mr. Rogers”), once said:

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be ‘tikkun olam’—repairers of creation.

Leading faithfully through business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities is about restoring the wreckage–repairing creation and healing people by bringing “work” back to the purpose and blessing envisioned in Genesis and restoring workplaces as platforms for people to live out their God-given purpose in an environment of Shalom where they are treated with dignity and respect.

You can’t restore a wrecked car, a broken piece of furniture or a damaged work of art unless you know what it was like when new.  When “work” was new, it was meant to be a blessing and a source of flourishing for creation, particularly people.

Genesis 1:28 (often called the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate) is God’s command for us to steward creation and cause it to flourish.  When the “way” of the world and business as usual has resulted in the wreckage of work”, our mission to steward necessarily becomes a mission to restore.  We believe leading faithfully through business a better way is an ancient path to the restoration or “work” as God intended it.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):  Each week I look forward to reading a blog by my friend Max Anderson called The Weekend Reader.  Each week, Max picks a current topic, summarizes several articles that present different perspectives on that topic, and presents his own view on that topic.  I highly recommend subscribing.  This past week the topic was Artificial Intelligence under the title “Regulate or Die?”

In Max’s postscript comments, he concludes:

The existential risk posed by AGI may be less about the AI turning malicious and killing humans with intent. The likelier scenario may simply be that the AI just doesn’t value human life like, well, like a human.

One of the articles Max selected posits this example:

Another example might be an AI that is asked to create a universal vaccine for a virus like COVID-19. That AI could understand that the virus mutates in humans, and conclude that having fewer humans will limit mutations and make its job easier. The vaccine it develops might therefore contain a feature to increase infertility or even increase mortality.

The danger is in the AI’s singular focus on its goal at the expense of everything else it does not know to value more highly.  In many ways, that is how business as usual “wrecks” work.  Its singular focus on profit is at the expense of relationships, community, human dignity, the flourishing of creation and, ultimately, God’s original design for work as a central and necessary element of our humanity.

Perhaps those designing AI who believe they can build in other parameters to temper the zeal with which the technology pursues its goal should reflect on Matthew 6:24–“No one can serve two masters.”

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Photo Credit: Original photo by Matt Paul Catalano on Unsplash (photo cropped)