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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.

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.  

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 Friends House Hospitality – 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.

The research project has also resulted in Dr Burton appearing at several events including the Quaker Studies Research Association Conference. During his presentations he has 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 next step in the research is to work with additional partners in adopting new and innovative management practices. An example of this is The Penn Club in London, who recently invited Dr Burton to work with the board on using spiritual discernment, with a view to transforming wider company cultures.

Looking to the future, Friends House Hospitality would like to explore how its employee base relates to its Quaker heritage and 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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