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Quaker spirituality informing management practice

Attaching religion and spirituality to the often-linear practices of secular business is an abstract and challenging concept. Dr Nicholas Burton has been applying the ethics of Quaker belief systems to decision-making processes in a corporate setting – with remarkable results. Organisations facing testing times have been increasingly open to the project’s introduction of different perspectives, with many witnessing positive changes and embracing new company-wide cultures.

Dr Burton is a senior lecturer at Northumbria University with a long standing interest in the relationship between Quakers and businesses. Dr Burton has been leading the ambitious project, ‘Quaker spirituality informing management practice’ and his extensive research explores two distinct, but related themes; Quaker ethics and values, and the Quaker management practice of decision-making.

The project is a response to the demanding challenges that modern businesses face every day – whether it be product recalls, poor corporate governance, digital engagement or data privacy. Searching for effective responses, management scholars have turned to practices adapted from spiritual or religious sources. Indeed, during recent years, those from Buddhist and Christian traditions have been used widely in secular contexts – mindfulness being a notable example. Less well-known, however, is the ability of such practices to improve organisational performance at group, team or even entire organisational level.           

Dr Burton’s innovative research has concentrated on how management practices from spiritual or religious traditions can actively improve practice in secular organisations and – conversely – how practices in secular organisations could potentially influence spiritual or religious organisations. The project has involved several companies and institutions of different shapes, sizes and contexts, using action research techniques and interviews with participants to gauge adaptability. Dr Burton has also appeared at several events including the Quaker Studies Research Association Conference. During his presentations he encouraged delegates to establish what lessons can be drawn from Quakers methodologies and how the methodologies can help to shape as cooperatives and commonwealth businesses.

The over-arching impact of the research has been to raise awareness of spirituality in a business context, converting theory into practice and – pivotally – triggering new behaviour. For example, embedding Quaker-inspired approaches into decision-making, such as periods of silent reflection in meetings and writing the minutes during meetings rather than afterwards, has improved team cohesion, reduced conflict and made processes more efficient.

During the initiative, Twenty-Fifty, a leading management consultant in human rights policy and practice, had considerable success incorporating ‘decision-making by discernment’ – a unity-focussed practice rooted in the Christian tradition – and especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Further impact was demonstrated when The Quiet Company – a business within the framework of the Religious Society of Friends – embedded the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of its ongoing corporative governance, reporting and strategy development. For instance, creating Decent Work – Sustainable Development Goal 8 – through the launch of the Quiet Company’s “Bake the Difference” project for people with personality disorders or histories of antisocial behaviour, in partnership with the London Pathways Programme, has assisted participants in finding long-term employment. 

Looking to the future, The Quiet Company would like to explore how successfully the UN SDGs have been embedded into its culture. Meanwhile, Twenty-Fifty are interested in exploring other techniques from the Quaker tradition, such as ‘threshing’ – a brand of spiritual brainstorming.

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