New York Stock Exchange. Flickr

A New Vision in the Center of Capitalism

The arrival in America of the head of a multi-national non-profit association of businesses was a provocation in the middle of the world financial crisis, promoting the individual person’s inestimable value above all profits and schemes for success.
Thomas D. Sullivan, Chiara Zamin, and John Touhey

There is much anxiety and confusion in New York these days, such as has not been seen since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Great Recession has taken a grim toll on the city that was the epicenter of the worldwide financial meltdown. As in so many other places across the U.S., countless businesses have been shuttered or forced to cut back and the unemployment rate continues to rise. Even those with jobs feel little security, knowing that any employee could be the next one to be pink-slipped. The workplace is full of tension. Many companies have gone into survival mode, more concerned about their short-term survival than any long-term goals. To be sure, much of this chaos is typical of any economic downturn–but there are also unmistakable signs that this particular crisis is being magnified by an increasing uncertainty not just about the future, but also about the meaning and value of economic activity and of work itself.

This is the turmoil that Bernhard Scholz, President of Compagnia delle Opere (Companionship of Works, also popularly known as CDO), faced as he arrived in New York in late October for a series of meetings and personal encounters. With more than 34,000 associated companies and affiliates around the world, the Companionship of Works promotes mutual collaboration and consulting activity among its members to foster the human element of business. From his experience running CDO, Scholz understands firsthand the challenges that the current crisis presents to companies and workers; yet, he remains fully certain that work is an expression of the human desire for total fulfillment. His trip was intended as an invitation to rediscover the “why” that ultimately unites entrepreneurs, managers, and workers even in the most challenging circumstances.

A different approach to work. The visit began simply but intensely as Scholz gathered with about 30 young workers for Sunday Mass near Wall Street, followed by a brunch at the Communion and Liberation office. A lively conversation ensued, propelled by all the questions that had arisen from difficulties at the workplace or from frustrating job searches: What’s the point of work when you are crushed in your daily routine or when it seems you are just mechanically obeying higher-ups? When you struggle in vain to build a rewarding career or when you reach goals but remain unhappy? When everybody at work seems to be in his/her own world without any concern for colleagues? When even we conspire in this dehumanization of the “I” at the office?

“Each of us lives an imperfect reality at work, so imperfect that we wish we were in a parallel world. But we are in this reality,” Scholz insisted. And we should be encouraged to live that reality with the true depth of our “I.” He pointed to the example of some CDO schools that train future managers. “After having listened to the experience of the person, we give value to that person by focusing on her/his own skills, so he/she can really express himself/herself.”

Scholz pointed out, however, that the freedom of the single person is connected with the good of the company as well as with the common good of the whole of society. It is a social responsibility to do good business, which contributes to the common good, a value more important than profit. How is all this possible when we are not managers but simple employees or only in middle management? “In my case,” explained one of the attendees, “I receive orders from the higher level and I have to give orders to some people under me.” Scholz continued, “What matters is not your position in the company, but the goal of the company and of your work. Every person has the right to ask. We have to ask what the meaning of a particular operation is, what the goal of our work is.”

“What if the reasons given to us are not ‘noble’?” another young worker inquired. “Then you have to make a compromise, a noble compromise,” Scholz replied. “What makes the difference is a new approach to work,” he went on to explain. “It’s a new type of relationship with our colleagues. We don’t need to be rebellious, but we need to find the good in everything and give value to it. The relationship with the other person is not an artificial handbook strategy, but it is a gratuitous interest in that person.” This is a risk we must take personally: “If I’m really honest with myself, I cannot avoid seeing the right path to take, struggling and fighting and making noble compromises. It’s an inch-by-inch process that takes time, because our real problem is being true.”

Starting from the human. Following a mid-week trip to Toronto, where he continued to propose a different way of conceiving work and enterprise, Bernhard Scholz returned to New York for a talk at Columbia Business School, home of one of the top business programs in the country. It was the inaugural presentation of “Human Capital,” a four-talk series sponsored by Crossroads Cultural Center with the goal of presenting “a new vision in economy beyond market, models, and ethics.”

Students, workers, professors, and business owners listened with interest as Scholz addressed the title of the series. “Human capital is the real resource to build a better future, a more human future, and to begin development that will include other peoples.” And what exactly is this “human capital”? “It is often wrongly defined as all the people who work inside a company or within a nation, a new translation of ‘human resources,’ as the counterpart of financial capital. Instead, I would define the term ‘human capital’ as the set of knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired, and those still incompletely expressed or even those that have not been discovered yet, during the life of an individual who seeks to achieve social and economic goals.”

Scholz emphasized that the view of work he was laying out did not spring from an abstract business model, new organizational theory, or innovative management technique. Rather, it was rooted in the most basic understanding of the human person–we all work to pay the bills, yes, but even more, our work is an expression of the deepest desires of our hearts. And this effort is impossible for us to carry out alone; it requires the presence and collaboration of others.

The adventure of work. “We can only start from what drives a person to face his or her life and work,” Scholz explained. “As we know, there are many theories about what motivates people to work, and I think that this issue must be addressed boldly from its origin. We need to go to the root of different motivations and give value to the real point: we are talking about the deepest desire of each person to conquer happiness and then to make this happiness complete and lasting. Monsignor Luigi Giussani, to whom not only the Movement of Communion and Liberation but also the Companionship of Works owes its existence, has made this ‘desiderium,’ which the great philosophical and theological traditions have spoken of as the essence of ‘umanum,’ something which is possible and present. It is evident that the desire for fullness of life by its nature pushes one to a search for the infinite and finds its ultimate expression in what Fr. Giussani calls the ‘religious sense.’”

While many people consider religion or the search for ultimate meaning a flight from reality, it is the religious sense “which leads us, introduces us to reality in order to transform it to make it more suited to the ultimate demands inscribed in our nature.”

Expressing this desire in work requires knowledge and skills that we cannot grasp alone or through a mechanical process. Rather, they are “generated, acquired, and transmitted mainly by people” and through “a relationship which a person freely establishes with the environment in which he or she lives.”

Lived at this level, a job can truly be an adventure. “Whoever works is obliged to look at the reality of things, to understand customer needs, user needs, the operation of a machine, the logic of a process, the market rules, the balance rules, and so many other things. The work, whatever it is, is in itself an invitation to continually improve on one’s set of knowledge and skills. Then, everything becomes an opportunity for learning, and work itself becomes education; that is, people come to know themselves and the world around them better.”

Ultimately, every job also challenges the person’s freedom. There is a temptation to settle for less or to despair when things do not go well or when business is reduced to maximizing profits above every other consideration. In these circumstances, we must decide whether to remain true to the “original impetus which ties us to the world. In this sense, the crisis is a great opportunity to stand in front of our own human nature, which does not wish for profit that will vanish, but to have the opportunity to create something really useful for everyone.”

Scholz was well aware that such a view might seem purely idealistic and not at all practical in the day-to-day struggles on the job. “One can wonder: How is it possible to really express one’s abilities, to really follow one’s desire, through a participation that only ‘makes a contribution’ without, instead, making a ‘complete’ work? The answer to this question can only be in a true and loyal involvement by the individual within the organization.”

Practical Opportunity
It is the responsibility of the organization to make clear the common goals that all are working toward, the principals that underlie given tasks, and to clearly communicate the content of each person’s work. The intention is not to stifle the contribution of the individual, but to make possible the cooperation that is necessary if anything truly lasting is to be constructed. These conditions are necessary to give dignity to each person’s job. This led to the difficult question of motivation. How can an organization motivate its workers? “If the true motivation for work is human desire,” Scholz insisted, “… then the motivation can only arise within the person and cannot be introduced from outside.” Instead, a smart employer will open “… a constructive dialogue that refers not to power plays or impressions, but to a continuous confrontation with facts, data, and results suggested by reality itself. The person, pushed by his own desire, will face reality for what it is through his responsibilities, with a tension toward real knowledge and the continuous improvement of his skills.”

Not surprisingly, Scholz’s proposals generated a lively, but friendly back and forth during the question-and-answer period; one business owner in attendance expressed skepticism that such a way of working is practically possible or even desirable for a company. But Scholz remained adamant that the person is not moved by ethical imperatives, but rather the understanding of what is truly good for him or herself. He also insisted that workers and organizations have to aim at long-term success, because the pursuit of short-term success betrays and destroys the person and the organization–as, Scholz argued, we can see in the current economic crisis.

As Scholz left the university and his whirlwind week drew to a close, there were still many questions–how can there not be, in the face of the serious challenges that lie before all of us? It is a fact, however, that this man, a witness of tranquil certainty in a tumultuous and anxiety-ridden time, provoked a great many people. Even the worst economic crises can be opportunities to take our desire seriously and to live our jobs (or our job searches) with an awareness that they are essential for our fruitful relationship with reality and our journey toward a great destiny. The decision to live this full engagement with work belongs to each one of us.