The Whiteheadian Workplace
Constructive Ideas from Vivian Quach, Chip Conley,
and Alfred North Whitehead
See also Can We Talk about Ethics?
The Whiteheadian Workplace
as Respectful of the Whole Person
Do you want to be employed in a workplace that respects you as a whole person? Me, too. Maybe some ideas from Whitehead's philosophy can help. Here are twelve of them.
Imagine a business that is inspired by this way of looking at the world. It would still seek a profit in the marketplace, but it would have a certain feel to it, an atmosphere, that would make it almost fun to work there. You would want to be productive, but in the very act of producing things you would also be growing as a human being and devoting your life to worthwhile ends.
This is the kind of business imagined by the hotelier and speaker, Chip Conley, in the TEDtalk below. He is not a Whiteheadian but in his own way he is imagining a Whiteheadian workplace. You will hear many of the ideas above proposed in his talk. We are grateful to TEDtalks for making all of this possible. And to Chip Conley and Vivian Quach, too. You'll meet both of them in the video.
Thank You, Vivian Quach
A Mentor for us All
"Van Quach came to this country in 1986 from Vietnam. She changed her name to Vivian as she wanted to fit in here in America. Her first job was working in an inner city motel in San Francisco as a maid. I bought that motel about three months after she started, so Vivian and I have been working together for 23 years. In 1987, with the youthful idealism of a 26 year old, I named my boutique hotel company Joie de Vivre and this bankrupt, pay-by-the-hour motel was my first acquisition.
"What counts to Vivian is the emotional connection she creates with her fellow employees as well as with our guests. She gets inspiration and meaning by knowing that she’s taking care of people when they’re vulnerable and traveling on the road far away from home — as Vivian herself knows what it’s like being far away from home. I love Vivian!"
Imagining a Whiteheadian Employer
Employers and supervisors who are influenced by the relational perspective of Alfred North Whitehead have a special quality about them.
They know that they have a responsibility to treat their employees with respect, to listen to their employees and learn from them, to share the financial and monetary fruits of their enterprises in generous ways, and help to create conditions that employees to enjoy emotional connections with fellow workers and customers.
In short, Whiteheadian employers aren't just bosses they are partners in collective enterprise of trying to live good lives. They have leadership skills and also humility skills. They know that they are fellow mortals on a small but gorgeous planet, small but included in a larger whole, for which they are not the center.
These employers may be Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Naturalists, or Free Spirits. They do not separate spirituality from business. Some will understand the lure toward wholeness within themselves and their employers as the very spirit of God at work in the world. They won't foist their religion on others; they celebrate life's diversity, cultural and religious. Still, they see the One in the workplace and want to help nourish a workplace that is friendly to spiritual concerns. Always they keep in mind the very purpose of life -- and the very purpose of business -- is to enhance the quality of life for people and other living beings. They know the bottom line.
Why is Vivian Smiling?
I offer three Whiteheadian guesses, with apologies to Vivian if I get it all wrong.
Reason #1: She Likes the Mood of the Place
Perhaps one reason she is smiling is that she works in a whole person workplace. She receives a good wage; her employers treat her with respect and inspire her to care for customers.
She inspires them, too. A whole person workplace is an inter-subjective environment in which people, employers and customers alike, feel one another's feelings and are shaped by them, consciously and unconsciously. The feelings at issue can be constructive or destructive,happy or unhappy, energized or bored.
Yes, there are hierarchical relations, but even the hierarchies are undergirded with a sense of conviviality and shared feeling. I hope she is influenced by the mood of the place.
Reason #2: She Takes Pride in Her Work
As a Whiteheadian there is another reason I hope she's smiling. I hope she is smiling because she takes pride in her work, including and perhaps even especially its manual dimension.
Western modernity has wrongly foisted on the world a dichotomy between body and mind, manual labor and intellectual labor. In a Whiteheadian context the body is appreciated as a dynamic center of energy in which the universe becomes present, and working with the body is one way that goodness and beauty are added to the universe in small and large ways.
There is nothing superior about keeping books over cleaning toilets, about managing an office over tilling the soil. They are all on the same plane. And the bodily work carries with it kinds of knowing that are sometimes absent from more intellectualized work.
As Howard Gardner at Harvard makes clear, there are many ways of knowing: interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, verbal-intellectual, mathematical-logical, musical-rhythmic, etc. Vivian is a coalescence of these forms, with special gifts in the interpersonal.
Reason #3: She is creatively Confucian.
Growing up in Vietnam, she is partly shaped by Confucian culture. She finds an important part of her identify through felt connections with others; she has mastered the arts of empathy (perspective taking and state sharing); she works hard; she wants to improve her life; she enjoys helping others; and, importantly, she has not yet succumbed to the most pernicious of western poisons: the cult of individualism. She is a creative Confucian.
Make no mistake: she is very much an individual. She is her own person, with her own ambitions, her own hopes, her own agency. She is proud of her accomplishments. She is open to novel possibilities and stands on her own ground. I wouldn't mess with her.
But she does not think of herself as a skin-encapsulated ego, cut off from the world by the boundaries of her skin. She does not think that the whole world revolves around her and that her happiness is the only thing that really matters.
She is an individual but not self-absorbed: an individual-in-community not an individual-in-isolation. Her sense of well-being emerges from her emotional connections with others. She is creatively Confucian.
At least this is how I imagine things. the time of the photograph she was cleaning toilets at a hotel in San Francisco. That's where Chip Conley, the man who gives the TED talk, met her. She became his teacher right away. She can be our teacher, too. She reminds us that the real bottom line in life is not profit, but emotional connections with others: other people, to be sure, but also other animals, and Heaven, the place where ancestors dwell and from which, at ever moment, we are called to be whole people in a whole world.