Home / Opinion / What can CEOs learn from religion?

The believers of modern, scientific world consider religion to be a relic of the past that should have been thrown into the dustbin of history. Religion is seen as the institution which thwarted the progress of science and rational thinking by jailing Galileo and burning down places of learning. Many of the beliefs and rituals can only be considered as superstitions.

On the other hand, modern organizations led by savvy professionals or by brilliant mavericks are seen as glowing examples of innovation and modern thinking. From time to time, management experts have identified a few organizations that are outstanding in their practice of modern management theory and have even written several books like In Search Of Excellence, Good To Great, and Built To Last about them.

But there is one problem. Despite all the hype, the vast majority of these so-called highly successful, worthy of being emulated companies, do not survive even for few decades. On the other hand, religion, with all its inadequacies, continues to survive after thousands of years.

What is the secret to the longevity of the religions? What can modern organizations learn from them?

Alain de Botton, the author of the book Religion For Atheists said that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting, consoling—and be curious about the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm. Modern organizations have a lot to learn from the traditional religions on how to influence and manage human behaviour.

Organized religions have perfected the art of building small cohesive communities which become the strong foundation on which they build global organizations. Most religions have a particular day of the week they expect all the believers to congregate at a particular place. Economic and status sub-groups are broken down during these meetings. The meeting is characterized by rituals that are a very effectively choreographed agenda of activities with deep meaning, in order to create strong emotional bonds among community members. How many modern organizations have venues and rituals that can transform strangers into mutually interdependent relationships?

Religions, more so organized religions, have been criticized for creating fanatic followers. How do religions create such devout, committed followers? Social psychologists, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, have studied initiation ceremonies of several tribal cultures where initiates have to undergo lots of painful ceremonies before they are accepted as full citizens of the tribe. They concluded that persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum effort.

Religions utilize this commitment principle very well. Religions embed various forms of suffering as part and parcel of their followers’ lives. Fasting and penance are an integral part of religious life. Most places of pilgrimages are on top of hills and in remote places where it requires (or at least used to require) a lot of physical effort to reach.

The Catholic church, which is one of the longest lasting organizations in the world, has the longest period of training period for its priests. While a management professional studies for two years, an engineer studies for four years, a Catholic priest studies for a minimum of 12 years before he ordains as a priest. While the armed forces have learned a trick or two from religions about making suffering as part of commitment building, modern organizations continue to have the false hope that positive incentives like salary increase and more perks will increase its employees’ commitment.

Religion and many of its teachings have been criticized for being unscientific. Most religious texts have stories that sound ridiculous. But why haven’t religions changed their narratives in tune with the discoveries of the scientific world? Religions know the power of consistency—stubborn consistency. Its teachings, its rituals, its symbols, even the dress code of the priests have remained consistent for centuries. Organizations that change their identity and processes with the arrival of each new chief executive officer (CEO) have a lot to learn about the power of consistency from religions.

Today, many governments and organizations are struggling to inculcate behaviours that are in tune with building a sustainable world. Sustainability is all about enduring pain in the present for pleasure in the future. Several studies have shown that the human brain tends to discount the future—more so its risks. Other researchers point to the finding that one’s present self has very little relationship with one’s future self, impeding our willingness to act in a sustainable way.

Religions have found an excellent way to create a brilliant connection between one’s present actions and future life, between one’s present self and one’s future self. Most religions have created the concept of afterlife and the devil. All religions have ingrained in their followers that there is a life beyond this life and how comfortable one’s afterlife is will depend on how one’s life is different from the ways of the devil. If modern organizations learn to successfully create the equivalents of these concepts of heaven and hell among its employees, it will go a long way in influencing the present-day actions of its employees.

Religions are some of the longest lasting institutions in the world. They surely have a lot to teach the modern day managers.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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