03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Companies Evolve

We may think that the world of business -- hard-nosed, bottom line environment -- does not welcome moral and spiritual growth, and, in fact, that such growth may be detrimental because spiritually committed leaders and employees might be less likely to make the tough decisions needed in a competitive environment. Recent studies, however, are showing that the opposite is true; that not only is moral and spiritual growth needed in business in order to create a better world, but, in fact, companies that operate from higher moral and spiritual perspectives are more effective, sustainable, and profitable, because their staff and clients are happier, more creative, more honest, more optimistic, and more collaborative.

One in-depth study of how companies grow in this way comes from, Tribal Leadership, a very readable, insightful book by authors Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and my dear friend John King. Over a five-year period they studied dozens of corporations, involving nearly 24,000 individuals, and discovered that work environments travel along a predictable path of growth, which can be expressed in statements, or "themes," that describe each stage's views on life. These statements, which are descriptions of "how things are," are generally shared by the majority of people within the organization, and become entrenched as individuals who disagree are pushed out, and like-minded new staff are brought on. The stages are as follows:

Stage 1: "Life sucks." People at this stage believe that the world is inherently bad; that human beings are dishonest, and that there is nothing anyone can do to change that unavoidable truth. Happiness, success, satisfaction, cooperation, and fulfillment are seen as delusional dreams, embraced by those who can not face the futility of existence. Such a viewpoint is very rare in a business setting, but is common in prisons or very dangerous, chaotic neighborhoods and regions.

Stage 2: "My Life Sucks." Here, individuals begin to see that life can be good, because they see that other people do, in fact, seem to be successful and happy. But people at this stage generally believe that such fortune is not possible for themselves, either because the system is set against them, or because they are, in some way, not worthy. Companies at this level are filled with complainers who grumble about work, but do nothing to help fix it. Dilbert cartoons, which characterize this level, can be found tacked to workstation walls at such companies.

Stage 3: "I'm Great (and you're not)." An individual breaks through the belief that "my life sucks" by experiencing success, and begins to take personal responsibility instead of blaming others. This person, though, may still carry the sense that "everyone is in it for himself", leading to brutal competition and a fight for resources and recognition. According to Tribal Leadership, most companies operate at this level, and are marked by harsh leadership, celebrated star performers, and a message of "succeed or move on."

Stage 4: "We're Great." The belief that "I'm Great" (and you're not) and the accompanying pressure to perform, eventually leads to burn-out, anxiety, and unhappiness. An "epiphany" is required to move to this next level, in the realization that deeper, lasting fulfillment can only come from a commitment to a higher purpose than offered by the narcissism of Stage 3. A person who experiences this epiphany then begins to embrace a new view that moves from "I" to "we." At this level individuals work together toward a common, worthwhile goal, success is shared and employees feel energized, respected, and proud. Companies that operate from the view "We're Great" are more profitable, more creative, and attract higher talent than previous levels.

Stage 5: "Life is Great." This level came as a surprise to the authors of Tribal Leadership, who had supposed that "We're Great" is the highest level. Their experience with the biotechnology company Amgen, however, showed them a new stage, where the focus is not on group pride and outperforming other companies. At Stage 5 people see their work from a higher perspective than monetary success, and operate from the viewpoint that life is meaningful, that individuals have purpose, and are motivated by a shared noble cause. At Amgen, employees see their purpose as eradicating disease and improving lives. Few companies operate at this level, but these few point the way to new possibilities of growth.

These stages, of course, apply to more than just our jobs. As Tribal Leadership tells us, there are many different ways to view the world, yet many of us carry these "themes" around with us, as though they absolutely describes how things really are, not realizing that it is a rung on a ladder of growth. We grow as our view of the world and "how things are" expands to embrace larger, more inclusive, less egoistic perspectives. These stages dramatically shape our happiness and effectiveness, and once we open to the realization that there are better, "higher" ways to understand the world and our lives, we can begin to climb this ladder, and discover new possibilities for ways of being that connect us more to each other, our work, our community, and to the very purpose for our lives.