An ethical rebalance

The hit TV series The Monastery, filmed at Worth Abbey, put meaning into people's lives. Could this unique place put ethics into your business too? Mark Vernon reports.

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The organisers of offsite away-days are good at picking striking venues. So how about a monastery? This could be a hard sell if it conjured up images of strange men and embarrassing religiosity in the mind of the team. But one monastery in particular, Worth Abbey - which featured in the hit BBC series The Monastery - might dispel the wariness of even the most committed sceptic.

Just why becomes apparent when you visit. On the one hand, Worth, dominated by a circular, red-brick church, is clearly a place dedicated to the deeper side of life. At least five times a day, the harmonious sound of chanting monks bounces off its walls. The building commands views of the Sussex Weald that cannot but help focus the mind on higher things. Yet on the other hand, Worth is a thoroughly this-worldly place. For one thing, the monks also run the eponymous public school. And, driving in, you sense a practical, humdrum atmosphere. There's copious parking space: this is a well-organised place that means business.

Abbot Christopher Jamison says this balance of the spiritual and the practical is key to what his Benedictine community offers organisations.

He is not the only Benedictine thinking along these lines - other communities in the UK and the US welcome people from business. But where Jamison is perhaps a step ahead is in founding the Soul Gym with Roger Steare, a London-based business consultant.

The Soul Gym runs seminars in which individuals come to think about business ethics. The emphasis is partly on personal reflection and partly on organisational learning, which is where the differentiator for Worth Abbey comes in.

The monastery follows the rule of the 5th-century monk St Benedict. 'He was very aware of the human tendency to avoid difficult questions,' Jamison explains. 'He succeeded in founding a community that could help people face the deepest questions in life but without scaring or oppressing them.' The Soul Gym translates this into practical strategies to address the difficult questions of business ethics.

Typical participants are senior managers charged by their company 'to make the business ethical'. And, mostly, they don't know where to start.

'They think ethics is either commandments or opinions,' says Jamison.

'They're quite surprised when we tell them ethics is neither of these but is a skill. It is a skill in decision-making. We can teach them the steps to take when making decisions. They can then teach others.'

Steare has written a book on this process called Ethicability. 'Businesspeople are conditioned to make quick decisions,' he explains. 'But decisions are typically complex. Like the layers of an onion, they need peeling away, particularly if you want to see how principles influence actions.'

Ethicability divides decision-making into three steps. The first is preparation, when those involved take a step back to ask about the feelings, dilemmas and options that the matter in hand raises. With this broader perspective, decision-makers are better able to bring ethical considerations to bear on the situation. The second step is to ask how the decision can be approached with integrity and fairness. Finally, people are encouraged to take the third step, testing the decision that has been made by asking, for example, whether it is honest; whether it is for the long term; and, if it has been particularly difficult, whether it is courageous.

In an ethical business, though, ethics is more than just a good policy; it is seen as the cornerstone of its culture. And this points to a larger challenge, for it is highly debatable just how ethical a profit-maximising operation can be.

It's not that profit is inherently unethical - someone who thought so would want to wash their hands of business. Rather, it's that business organisations nurture utilitarian cultures. What you do is judged by what you deliver. So what you'd like to do may differ from what you have to do. The thoroughly ethical approach, though, nurtures a culture that is not utilitarian but virtuous. What you do is judged by the kind of person or organisation it makes you.

This clash reveals itself in the divided feeling people have in their workplaces. 'They feel that they have to leave their values at the office door,' Jamison says. 'I suspect that very many people no longer want to do this. They know that they'd be a lot happier if they could live with more integrity.'

He believes there are more people in senior management who want to build a business they can feel proud of - not because it makes money but because it is built on ethical values.

Jamison draws a distinction between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and business ethics. CSR, he says, is an important development in the engagement between businesses and the community. And, sometimes, companies devote substantial resources to it. They may give employees days off to do social work or set up well-resourced community teams. Yet CSR does not address the culture of the organisation. This, he says, is the heart of business ethics. It is also far harder to do.

ut perhaps the insights of Benedict can help. He was surprisingly pragmatic about day-to-day life, making considered compromises. For example, faced with the issue of whether monks should drink alcohol, Benedict admitted that it would be better if they did not. But he mused that nowadays (meaning the 5th century), it has become commonplace for beer and wine to be drunk at meals. And this is good. So, he sanctioned drinking moderately.

'This balance is what has been lost,' Jamison suggests. In business, the scales have tipped too far in favour of simply pursuing profits. They need to be rebalanced by wider human considerations. 'Being ethical when it comes to easy decisions is, naturally, easy,' he continues. 'However, even with harder decisions, I would say that being unethical is bad for your business. You will damage your brand and damage your industry as a whole.' The mis-selling of pensions is a case in point. 'Further, you damage the fabric of society.' This matters to business when, say, it erodes values like trust, which commerce as well as community depend on.

Benedict exhorted monks not to grumble. 'He understood office politics,' Jamison exclaims. 'This is about the difference between making a complaint, which is right and proper, and allowing bad feeling and back-biting to fester, which is not.'

Perhaps the most arresting Benedictine insights relate to business leadership.

Benedict's reflections on the 'qualities of the abbot' read like a manual for good CEOs. The rules read: 'If he teaches his disciples that something is not to be done, then neither must he do it; the abbot should avoid all favouritism in the monastery; in his teaching, the abbot should always observe the Apostle's recommendation in which he says use argument, appeal, reproof; and he must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken.'

When participants arrive for the Soul Gym, they are asked to turn off their mobile phones: disconnecting from the network lets them reconnect with the here-and-now. Many would regard this as challenge enough for one day. But do the benefits of the course run deeper, when individuals leave the monastic idyll and return to commercial reality? 'The real work is to take this into the workplace,' agrees Steare, who is also involved in rolling out programmes of business ethics in large multinationals.

Participants say it works. Niall Gallagher, group compliance officer, business ethics at Allied Irish Bank, signed up for the Soul Gym after reading the FSA's white paper Integrity in Practice, written by Jamison and Steare. 'Business ethics is very difficult to express in simple terms while still dealing with the complexity of the subject,' he says. 'You can read a lot of shallow waffle but what they said knitted the personal and ethical principles together well.'

For him, the usefulness of the Soul Gym was not found in a blinding insight. It was in providing a frame of reference for sound reasoning. For example, if rules - even ethical rules - are applied without sensitivity, their aims can backfire because they seem patronising and undermine mutual respect.

The skilful thing to do - to recall Jamison's conviction that thinking about ethics is a skill - is to integrate the principles of good ethics with those of good business. Now, when writing compliance codes and pamphlets, Gallagher is conscious of incorporating what he has learnt from his colleagues rather than simply imposing check-the-box-based processes on them. 'It's not about shining a spotlight into dark places but rather about reflecting the light,' he says.

Lucy Lofting, HR director EMEA with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, was struck by the uniqueness of the Soul Gym following a taster session. 'The ethicability model and the thought behind it suggested an approach I and my team could work through as a process.' She proposed a 24-hour course at Worth Abbey as part of their engagement with Sarbanes-Oxley. '(The team) were somewhat surprised at first, but that gave way to a great deal of interest.'

Her colleagues were struck by the abbey's peace and how it inculcated a sense of thinking and learning something new. 'Abbot Christopher made a big impression upon us too,' she continues. 'He is a man of many parts.

He reflected on what we were saying in a way that was very valuable, getting us to think, for example, about what we wanted from each other and could offer each other.'

Business ethics often poses issues that are very difficult to negotiate, adds Lofting. 'Now, when we have such matters to grapple with, we have a process that we can use together. I simply have not seen any such system elsewhere.'

Benedict's suggestions are not always easy. Above all, he was keen that monks remember they are mortal. But the aim was not to live in constant fear of death; it was to live with a better balance in the present. And this is, perhaps, a measure of the simplicity and the immense difficulty of the business ethics task. On the one hand, all it asks for is balance.

But on the other, it takes the contemplation of mortality seriously to get to grips with it.


1. Take personal responsibility. The rule says: 'Faithfully put advice into practice.'

2. Subordinate yourself to bigger principles. The rule says: 'Give up your own will.'

3. Exercise self-management. The rule says: 'Remember to whom you are accountable.'

4. Create trust in the organisation. The rule says: 'Be a living example.'

5. Keep morale high. The rule says: 'Adapt to each monk's character and intellect.'

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