Worldview @ Work
March 1, 2007 • By Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D.
The term “worldview” may sound abstract or philosophical, a topic discussed by pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed academics. But actually, a person’s worldview is intensely practical. It is simply the sum total of our beliefs about the world, the “big picture” that directs our daily decisions and actions. And understanding worldview is extremely important.
Charles Colson, Shall We Live?
Tim wants to persuade his company to offer full disclosure in their annual report to shareholders. Brad wants to encourage his firm to make employees a higher priority, putting people ahead of profits. Stacey wants to convince her top management peers that they should be transparent when describing the company in their ads and when interviewing job candidates. Martin wants to share the gospel with his co-workers more strategically.
These are diverse people with diverse objectives. But one thing they all have in common is this: they’ll each be in a better position to reach their objectives if they understand the worldview of the people around them.
The absence of that understanding has culminated in some colossal blunders among workplace Christians. We too often attempt to influence people’s thinking based on the assumption that they are persuaded by the same things that persuade us. So, operating on that faulty assumption, Tim might denounce the “sin of misrepresentation.” Brad might try to talk about the value of “servant leadership.” Stacey might say that God wants us to be honest. And Martin might begin with his invitation with “The Bible says…”
Big mistake in most work environments. Fatal mistake. And if any of our four hypothetical friends here really understood how their colleagues see the world – if they understood their colleagues’ “worldview” – they’d immediately recognize the probable folly of their approach to persuasion. In each case, because the hearer is operating on a different set of assumptions about the world than is the speaker – because they have different worldviews – the hearer will likely dismiss the speaker’s argument out of hand. “It’s superstition,” the hearer would think. “It’s myopic.” “It’s old-school thinking.” “It’s anti-intellectual.” You may have heard such retorts yourself. I certainly did once upon a time.
Far more persuasive is a strategic approach that identifies the other person’s worldview and then operates within it. The Apostle Paul modeled this well at Mars Hill when, in seeking to evangelize the intellectual elite of Greece, he built his argument within their own worldview. He said:
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17: 22-23).
Paul knew what Chuck Colson has echoed two millennia later: “understanding worldview is extremely important.” It’s pivotal, in fact, if we want to make progress advancing Christian values in the workplace. So we should invest significant time gaining that understanding.
A Primer on Worldview
In basic terms, a worldview is the totality of our beliefs about God, about the world, and about the relationship between the two. It is the lens through which we interpret and make sense of everything around us. And while that may sound abstract, esoteric, and far, far removed from the practical concerns of the workplace and of business, as we’ll see shortly, the beliefs that people hold regarding these core issues have a profound effect on their priorities, on their sense of right and wrong, and ultimately, on their day-to-day behavior and decision-making.
There are, of course, many worldviews represented in our culture. Some are mono-theistic (e.g., the worldviews of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), others are pantheistic (e.g., New Age and some eastern religions), and still others are agnostic, maintaining that the nature – and the existence – of god is ultimately unknowable. This latter category of worldviews, collectively-termed “secularism” (or “naturalism” by some), is considered to be the dominant worldview in western culture, say expert observers of society. It asserts that since God is unknowable, ultimate truth is unknowable. The commentary of theologian R.C. Sproul is representative: “for the secularist, there is no ultimate answer because there is no ultimate truth…It’s a message that’s being proclaimed, indeed screamed, from every corner of our culture.”
Survey evidence from culture-watchers like George Barna and George Gallup, Jr. confirms that the screaming is penetrating deeply. To cite just one example, in a 2002 poll, Barna asked over 1,000 adult Americans whether they believed that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the situation. By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation (www.barna.org, 2-12-03).
So, since the workplace is simply a microcosm of society generally, we naturally find the influence of secularism all around us at work. Let’s look more closely at that worldview, contrasting it with the Christian worldview, and examining its manifestations at work and in business.
Christianity versus Secularism
Rather than use the standard philosophical jargon, let me try to explain the central distinctions between the Christian and secular worldview through a concrete example. Joe Christian and Jane Secular are friends, but their worldviews are in serious conflict. Joe believes that there is a God and that God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jane rejects the notion that we can know there’s a god. For her, there may be a god somewhere out there, but if there is, that god is simply unknowable.
Joe believes that God created the world and exists apart from the world. Jane cannot say whether god (if there is a god) created the world. For her, the observable realm – the here and now, the things we can experience through our senses – is all that exists for sure.
Joe believes that we can know God, God’s will, and God’s nature because God has revealed himself through scripture, through his creation, and most of all, through the person of Jesus Christ. Jane believes that if there is a god, there’s no way to know whether that god is involved in the world. In fact, for Jane, there’s no point in even talking about god because, for all intents and purposes, there’s nothing one can say about god. The whole construct of “god” is a speculation.
The implications for daily living are almost infinite, since their divergent assumptions determine Joe and Jane’s divergent opinions about right and wrong and how we should live. For Joe, absolute truth, absolute right, and absolute wrong are knowable through the Bible. For Jane, what’s “true,” what’s “right,” and what’s “wrong” are relative to persons and situations. If there is no god – or even if there is an unknowable god out there – then who’s to say what’s right for everyone? Actually, from Jane’s standpoint, it’s the ultimate act of hubris and tyranny to claim to know such a thing! Now, that doesn’t mean that Jane has no value system, no sense of morality, no sense of right and wrong, or no basis for the choices she makes. She does. But for Jane, the “rightness” of some behavior or of some decision is determined not in the Bible, but elsewhere, as we’ll see in a moment.
These distinctions between Joe and Jane illustrate the core elements of a person’s worldview: the nature of God, of the world, and of the connection between the two. And as these vary, so too will vary people’s perspectives on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In a meeting, for example, Joe and Jane might disagree on the legitimacy of using scantily-clad models in the company’s advertising. Or they might reach different conclusions when discussing the merits of pursuing competitive advantage via serving employee needs. They may similarly diverge on the prudence of squeezing a small supplier for a better price, on the acceptability of fudging a quarterly report, on the role of profit, or even on the whole purpose of a business.
That’s not to say they’ll never agree on anything. They will, where their worldviews intersect. Joe and Jane will agree that race discrimination is wrong, for example, because that conclusion comports with both Joe’s Biblically-based worldview and Jane’s more humanistic worldview. They’ll agree that a business needs to make a profit because that squares with their core assumptions as well. They’ll agree that it’s wrong for the company to significantly harm the environment. And they’ll agree on a host of other things too. But the central point is this: worldviews powerfully drive people’s opinions and decision in the workplace (and everywhere else for that matter), so if Joe Christian really wants to influence the people around him, he needs to understand how they think, what persuades them, and what does not. He needs to understand their worldview.
Worldview in the Business Environment
Let’s dig just a little deeper here to explore the major variants of secularism that tend to dominate business thinking. Indeed, “secularism” has many children – descendant worldviews that vary in one way or another from each other, but that all share the same parent assumption that god and truth are unknowable. You may have heard of several of secularism’s progeny: humanism, existentialism, hedonism, relativism, pluralism, and so forth. It’s an ornate family tree. And each branch of that tree serves as a filter for the values, the behaviors, and the decision-making of millions of westerners.
Two of these branches are pervasive in business; that is, two offshoots of secularism explain the lion’s share of how business people tend to think, what they find persuasive, and how they make decisions. These two have fancy names – “pragmatism” and “empiricism” – but the concepts are actually both simple and intuitive.
Pragmatism: “Right” is determined by “what works”
Pragmatism is the spin-off of secularism that maintains that “right” is that which “works” to solve a problem. The right thing to do is the expedient. Identify the problem, find a quick fix, move on to the next problem. “If the solution might create other problems down the road, don’t worry about that now,” declares the pragmatist. “Time is of the essence. Just solve the immediate problem and we’ll deal with any residual problems later.
“And don’t confound things with assertions of absolute right and wrong,” he continues. “What works for the moment is what’s right.”
The renowned sociologist and theologian Harvey Cox has summarized the cultural phenomenon this way in his much-acclaimed, The Secular City:
“Urban, secular man is pragmatic. He devotes himself to tackling specific problems and is interested in what will work to get something done. He has little interest in what has been labeled ‘borderline’ questions of metaphysical considerations. He wastes little time thinking about ultimate or religious questions.”
This is especially true for the “secular city” (or secular workplace) in the United States, since pragmatism is the only worldview that is actually indigenous to the U.S. (we’ve imported most of the others from Europe). And it’s part of the genius that has culminated in the U.S. sustaining an economic and technological leadership position for over a century. Of course, this fixation on short-run problem solving has also created innumerable problems in organizations, in public policy, in the household, in people’s personal lives, and so on. But the point is that business people, especially in the United States, have long been infected with the worldview of pragmatism, incessantly focusing on identifying and implementing “what works.”
Empiricism:“Right” is determined by “what’s provable”
A second worldview descending from secularism is what is called “empiricism.” In a nutshell, it maintains that scientific proof determines what’s “right” and how we should proceed on any given issue.
We can see the manifestations in every functional area of business. From reorganizing the firm’s portfolio to ascertaining demand for a new product to evaluating the prudence of a profit-sharing plan, “show me the data” is the mantra of contemporary business. Business decision-makers want evidence – hard, empirical evidence – that A causes B before they will invest in A. And the greater the cost of A, the more convincing the evidence needs to be.
The explosion of academic studies, consulting company surveys, research grants, and corporate in-house research programs in the last fifty years bears testimony to the value we place on empiricism. “Rational” business people are simply more convinced by sound scientific research than they are by anecdote, logic, or emotional argument – or by appeals to theology, God, the Bible, or anything else that, in their minds, lays claim to truth without abundant scientific backing. So, returning to the question of whether a company should use the sexy ad campaign or the cleaner one, the decision is made by gathering data – by using focus groups, by crunching the numbers, by analyzing the experience of other such campaigns, etc. To the empiricist’s ears, an appeal to Jesus’ words on lust and adultery is laughable. From his perspective, god is unknowable and, therefore, so are any normative standards of right and wrong. Instead, science and the empirical method tell us the right course of action.
Applying This Knowledge to Become More Persuasive
Given all this, let’s return briefly to Joe and Jane at work. Let’s say that they’re discussing the strategy of expanding the business by “putting people first” – that is, the theory that if you focus on serving employee needs, employees will in turn deliver a more excellent product or service, thereby increasing market share and satisfying all other stakeholders. Joe believes, but does not reveal, that this is a God-honoring strategy since “servanthood” is a core tenet of his Christian faith. Meeting employee needs – genuinely loving them – is one of the many things that business should be about, he thinks. But making such an assertion to a secularist like Jane would be rhetorical suicide. Jane would hear his theological rationale as unbridled dogma with no basis in reality, since her worldview maintains that one cannot know anything about the supernatural. Consequently, she’d instantly dismiss Joe’s opinion as baseless.
But if Joe understands Jane’s worldview – her core assumptions about God, about the world, and about God’s (lack of) involvement in the world – and if Joe has a handle on how Jane processes information to determine the “right” course of action, then he’s in a better position to be persuasive, to win his point, and ultimately, to operationalize what he considers to be a Biblically-based management strategy. If he knows that Jane is persuaded by “what works” and “what’s provable” – that is, by pragmatism and empiricism – then he can operate within her worldview rather than against it to make his case. Accordingly, he’d claim that “putting people first” works (i.e., that it’s pragmatic), as has been demonstrated in countless companies around the world (Southwest Airlines, The SAS Institute, Mary Kay Inc., R.W. Beckett Corp., and The Men’s Wearhouse, to name a few). Further, appealing to her disposition toward the empirical, Joe could bring to the discussion a synopsis of the many academic studies that demonstrate the connection between paternalistic people-management and profitability. Since these studies, like many path-breaking studies, have been translated into practitioner-friendly books and articles, Joe won’t even have to interpret a t-statistic for Jane!
This illustration is merely one of innumerable uses for understanding others’ worldview. No doubt you could think up many such examples on your own. But, to come full circle, just compare how Jane Secular would hear Joe’s latter argument relative to how she would hear terms like “God,” “Bible,” or “servant-leadership.” There’s no guarantee that she’ll be persuaded by Joe’s clever line of reasoning, mind you, but she’ll at least consider it, increasing the chance that Joe’s approach will ultimately prevail.
A Tool for Advancing the Kingdom
Part of our task as Christians in the workplace is to advance the kingdom – to advance Christian values in the way business is done, in the way money is used, in the way people are treated, and so on. Sometimes that will entail being overt about our worldview – taking a strong, explicit stand for Christian values, pointing people to God, and professing the truth and wisdom of scripture. Other times, the overt approach will be counter-productive and instead, we should choose a different strategy, a wiser and more calculated strategy. To do that, we need to understand the assumptions about the world that our audience brings to the conversation and then present our case in terms that do not initially offend those assumptions.
About 2,500 years ago, Aristotle noted this well in Rhetoric, writing that the shrewd, effective orator is one who has a thorough comprehension of his audience. Centuries later, Jesus taught his evangelists to be “shrewd as serpents” in their communication of the truth (Matthew 10:16). And in contemporary times, we hear the same transcendent message from worldview gurus like Chuck Colson: “We must have some understanding of the opposing worldviews and why people believe them…Only then can we defend truth in a way that is winsome and persuasive.”
Clearly, we’ve just scratched the surface of the subject here, identifying in broad strokes why worldviews matter and which ones are predominant in business. Several quality resources exist to help us learn much more. Among the best are:
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, 2005
Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict, 1992
Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? 1999
R.C. Sproul, Battle for Our Minds: Worldviews in Collision (www.ligonier.org)
Augustine, The City of God
Harvey Cox, The Secular City, 1966
The Worldview Academy (worldview.org) and Probe Ministries (probe.org)
Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at Charleston Southern University and the editor of the Christianity9to5.org.