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Improving on the Weberian Ideal: Bureaucracy and Spirituality in the Workplace

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
February 2, 2020

This article was in part inspired by a thought-provoking piece written in 2008 by Chris Baker and Jonathan Miles-Watson of the William Temple Foundation in the United Kingdom, in which they proposed some new ideas for public administration based on the concept of spiritual capital.

The concept is not a new one; in fact, there has been a great deal of study of spiritual capital in the workplace by social scientists; recent examples of this work include The Role of Spiritual Capital in Innovation and Performance: Evidence from Developing Economies by Mitchel Neubert, Steven Bradley, Retno Ardianti, and Edward Simiyu, published in 2017, and Establishing Linkages between Intelligence, Emotional and Spiritual Quotient on Employees’ Performance in Government Sector of Pakistan by Adeel Ahmed, Mohd Anuar, Arshad Mahmood, and Sohail Akhtar, published in 2015. Such critical examinations of spirituality in the workplace have focused on attitudinal and behavioral issues that often prove difficult to manage, such as feelings of alienation owing to cultural insensitivity, anger and violence associated with intercultural conflicts, and general job dissatisfaction.

In the previous century, the so-called behavioral revolution was inspired by Abraham Maslow’s influential theory from 1943 of a hierarchy of human motivations and Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory from 1954 that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are largely independent perceptions. This research has contributed greatly to the understanding of employees’ behavior in terms of identifying key motivational factors in the workplace environment, such as manager-subordinate interactions, pay and fringe benefits, promotional opportunities and job security. In the present century, scholars have been exploring spirituality as another motivational factor and lens through which to view workplace behavior and another means to improve employees’ performance.

The concept of spiritual capital, which has to do with the intangible assets possessed by an individual or organization, is based on the assumption that a correlation exists between satisfaction and performance. Notable in this context is a 2011 paper by Chris Baker, Peter Stokes, Jessica Lichy and Danny Moss entitled Values, Beliefs and Attitudes in the Era of Late-Capitalism. This paper regards possible impacts of spirituality on innovative performance. The (Max) Weberian ideal of a bureaucratic organization characterized by regular activities and a dependable supply of resources (human, financial and technological) producing large-scale programs and services for the public good (for groups, communities, and societies) takes into account mainly physical working conditions (e.g., cleanliness and safety). Herzberg identified the physical space and structure of an organization as a, “Hygiene factor,” that affects employees’ attitudes and behaviors but not their motivation.

Theories and models of public administration are supposed to influence practice so as, ideally, to improve bureaucracies and achieve efficiency and effectiveness by adjusting human performance, drawing attention to the meaningfulness of work and responsibility and leveraging technical skills. Students of public administration recognize that effectiveness and efficiency are the primary goals of experts and public administrators as they innovate and adjust in order to accomplish their goals. Discussion of bureaucracy in introductory public administration courses tends to involve only traditional behavioral science. Beyond that, however, spirituality has implications for human motivation and work-quality. In 2014, Margaret Benefiel, Louis Fry and David Geigle explored the role of spirituality in the workplace in an article titled Spirituality and Religion in the Workplace: History, Theory and Research, including the Protestant work ethic and theories about human resources (capital).

As these scholars observed, the association of work and prayer has had mixed results, for example, in the context of the assignment of mundane jobs without promotional opportunities to workers owing to their ethnicity or limited language skills. Sometimes, spirituality at work serves to enforce positive behaviors and improve job performance.

This discussion of spirituality in the workplace has been taking place in mainstream publications, where the focus has been on its role in enhancing leadership and innovative performance. Relevant search categories in ResearchGate (a European social networking site through which scholars share knowledge) include such terms as, “Teachable,” (referring to spiritual development that promotes listening and team interactions), “Epiphany,” (referring to spirituality as a kind of awakening), and, naturally, “Workplace spirituality,” (referring to workers’ attitudes and their desire to view their work as meaningful).

There is an emerging consensus among leaders and scholars that giving due attention to spirituality in both theories and praxis regarding support for workers’ beliefs in a higher power and philosophies can improve the workplace through the promotion of altruistic virtues—particularly selflessness and love. From this perspective, the rational, scientific Weberian ideal of bureaucracy, useful as it has been for analyzing organizations, is incomplete and can be improved with the incorporation of spiritual concerns.

Research of the kind discussed here has shown the potential benefits of attention to the spiritual dimension of bureaucracy for maximizing the work performance of human resources as reflected in such measures as job commitment and satisfaction, productivity, team cohesion and loyalty. In modern public bureaucracies, then, familiarity with the concept of spiritual capital can assist in advancing leadership and management initiatives designed to improve effectiveness and efficiency, and create value throughout the public administration system.


Author: Kimberley Garth-James, Associate Professor & Director, MPA Program and Azusa Pacific University Center for Public Affairs – Sacramento. E-mail: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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