John Terrill, trust, workplace, rites of passage, promotion, medieval guilds, mentorship, apprenticeship

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Our Social Fabric Is Breaking Down

Three ways your workplace can actually help replenish it.

The breakdown of social capital — the relational links and “norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” within our families, neighborhoods, and larger communities that sustain our individual and collective well-being — was documented by Robert Putnam in his 1995 groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone. Since Putnam presented his research, societal trust has further eroded, and with it, many rites of passage that have traditionally marked key moments and movements of our woven lives.

Reenacting Rites of Passage

In his 1909 book, Les Rites du Passage, French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) first coined the phrase “rites of passage.” It is commonplace in academic and spiritual formation communities to identify and describe rituals that mark life’s meaningful liminalities or transitions. A rite of passage can be any event or ceremony that delineates a change in someone’s life. It usually involves the progression of an individual from one group to another with a corresponding change in their status, position, role, or identity. Common religious and cultural examples include baptisms, first communions, baby dedications, confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, marriage ceremonies, and funerals, not to mention cap and gown graduation ceremonies, belts earned in the martial arts, Eagle Scout courts of honor, white coat ceremonies in medicine and pharmacy, and line (equator) crossing ceremonies for navy and merchant navy crews.

With respect to workplaces — where many of us spend the majority of our non-sleeping hours — several important questions arise. What role might employers play in replenishing our social fabric? How might we think more systematically about shaping meaningful customs and rituals that mark employees’ aspirations and accomplishments? What rites beyond welcoming, promoting, and retiring employees might we incorporate to advance a clearer vision for the good life?

As reported by the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, faith in one’s employer is high — and rising — in 18 of the 27 countries assessed. Against this backdrop, managers have new opportunities to assist team members in better traversing their vocational journeys. Navigating and demarcating career and life transitions helps employees find connection and strength when feeling unsure, fearful, alone, or stuck.

Learning from Medieval Guilds

Medieval craft and merchant guilds recognized important age- and skill-based distinctions. Organized to help workers gain new proficiencies, connect meaningfully with others in their fields, and pursue economic and socio-religious goals, guilds marked career progressions from apprentice to journeyman to master. According to economists William Bosshardt and Jane S. Lopus, apprenticeships started at age 12. Lasting from two to seven years, they provided an opportunity for an apprentice to learn a trade by living and working with a guild master. After completing an apprenticeship, a worker could become a journeyman and earn a daily wage. Once reaching master level, workers could start their own businesses, but before earning this rank they had to produce a “masterpiece” to prove their abilities. Once accepted as a master, some were chosen as inspectors and wardens to ensure the quality and reputation of guild members’ work. Guilds had holistic aspirations and helped families by paying for dowries and burials, and when the Black Death came, they served as vital networks for survivors. They even encouraged spiritual growth by promoting prayer, Bible reading, and other pious behavior.

Although guilds have largely disappeared, their example is instructive. They remind us that our needs are different at various phases of our lives. Constructing meaningful rites for different legs of our vocational journeys leads to greater flourishing. 

Affirming the Container and the Content

Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr provides a framework for how we might guide employees toward more coherent lives. Drawing on Thomas Merton’s earlier work that explored the “true self” and “false self,” Rohr suggests in his book Falling Forward that there are two major tasks in life: to construct a strong “container,” or sense of identity, and to fill it with God’s image-bearing content that it was designed to hold. Rohr likens this journey to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — the base of the pyramid associated with core psychosocial need and the top aligned to deeper levels of meaning-making. Both container and content are vital for achieving the good life, and both uniquely address the needs of people at different stages of life.

With a guild’s elder-apprentice framework in mind, as well as Rohr’s affirmation of the container and content of an image-bearer, here are three broad ideas for strengthening employer-based developmental rites

1. Create on-ramps for the heroic journey.

One’s vocational journey looks different at varying stages of life and career. When launching a career, attention is naturally directed to building work skills, gaining job security, and establishing outward influence and reputation. This phase of ascent is what Rohr and others describe as the “heroic journey.” Rules, standards, titles, and metrics provide the discipline and structure necessary to harness this “heroic” energy. As Rohr rightly observes, “The ego cannot be allowed to be totally in charge … or it takes over.” A well-conceived workplace for apprentices narrows the field of choices in ways that best serve its newest members. Failing to do so diffuses vitality in counterproductive ways. Clearly defined onboarding rituals, mentoring programs, training rotations, job titles and descriptions, and performance expectations and reviews are essential for creating a healthy career ascent.

The heroic journey is not wrongheaded or aimless, but rather a crucial early step in identity formation at work. But here is the challenge: It is vital for leaders who supervise others to remember that this stage is largely associated with the false self — the part of us that is ego-driven, meant to please others, and, as Rohr suggests, who we perceive ourselves to be “outside of love, relationship, or divine union.” The false self must prove that it is instrumentally significant; the true self knows that it is significant by nature.

2. Create off-ramps for true-self exploration. 

According to Rohr, on our journey to become whole persons, we transition from “relative identity” — who we think we are relative to others — to “absolute identity” — who we truly are relative to God. When making this transition well, moving from the false self to true self feels natural — as if nothing has been sacrificed. When this transition does not go well, stagnation, self-absorption, and crisis ensue. We might think of the progression from false self to true self as an evolution of eldership.

Finding deep meaning and joy by serving and developing others, elders befriend ambiguity, paradox, and nuance. They function as sages who bring out the best in the people around them. Rather than drawing attention to themselves, they advocate for their neighbors. In spiritual parlance, Rohr describes this shift as a “major about-face” from our self-contained kingdoms to the kingdom of God.

Elders have worked to expose their shadows — bringing to light the parts of themselves they did not want to see and halting the projection of their lives they desperately wanted others to see. A goal for workplaces hoping to ritualize eldership is to create pathways for these transitions to occur more naturally. Formal mentoring programs can be a part of the equation, but opportunities for focused coaching along the way and more informal chats can be equally transformative. Celebrating what Erik Erikson calls “generative psychosocial development” is vital for organizational learning, where mature leaders lead out of their rootedness and abundance to nurture colleagues whom they know will outlast them. 

3. Enable developmental U-turns. 

The first two recommendations implicate employees at natural stages of life progression. The final commendation invites redemptive learning loops for those who feel or act stuck. Organizations can and should design rites that allow members to acknowledge mistakes and make developmental U-turns. 

Much has been written in management scholarship about leadership derailment — being plateaued, demoted, or discharged before one reaches an anticipated level of success, or conversely, reaching a level of anticipated career achievement but then unpredictably failing. The reasons can be complex, but some combination of competence, character, and behavioral deficiency is most often at the root.

Organizations that understand people “as the subject of work, not just the object of work” will see the workplace as a garden-like venue where character, competence, and behavior can be cultivated, as Bill Pollard, former CEO of ServiceMaster, states. Carol Dweck’s landmark research on growth mindset — that personal characteristics, even intellectual abilities, can be developed throughout life — confirms this approach. Accordingly, employers should build a culture that promotes growth rather than a fixed mindset. To pursue the former, feedback and coaching become allies, and employees are less prone to veil who they are and who they need to become.

Seeing the Workplace as a Moral Community

Seeing and engaging employees as persons who are becoming can feel at odds with a culture of maintenance, performance, and control. Employers may be tempted to resist creating this kind of growth-oriented environment. But workplaces are at their best when conceived as moral communities. Business philosopher, consultant, and educator Peter Drucker likened the management of people to a liberal art, not concerned with profit as an end goal but as a means to serve the larger human, moral community.

Jesus’ invitation to lose one’s life to save it pushes against the demands of the marketplace, but if we believe his words to be true, we will affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The workplace is a venue where the soul can be cultivated, but thoughtfulness is required at each stage — container and content, true self and false self, apprentice and elder. Enlightened management requires intentionality, authenticity, and empathy. And it can be hard to define. But when you draw near to it, the life-giving vitality of good leadership is unmistakable.

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