“Workplace altruism” is a valuable concept in coming to understand the importance of culture and values in the work place. It is a hopeful sign that this concept is getting so much attention. There was a time when books like Winning through Intimidation, Taking Care of No. 1 and, of course, Mean Business by “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap were big sellers. Business is still tough and being competitive is important but it is not the only or best path to success.
Unknowingly, I had a vivid introduction to workplace altruism nearly twenty years ago when I was working with the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey in Northern Yorkshire, England. Nestled in a valley they run a first-rate, 21st century school as the central work of the Abbey, yet they live in accordance with the rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480–547). It is an interesting admixture of modern systems and time-tested wisdom. I spent one week a month with them for fifteen months as they grappled with the need to adjust their school and their other ministries to the shifting realities of life in post-modern England. I took many lessons from my time with the monks but the one I will reflect upon here is anchored in something that took place during meals.
Most meals were conducted in silence. Silence during meals was a change for me. I see meals as a time for conversation, the more animated the better, but that was not the style at Ampleforth. The food was served family-style and each dish was promptly passed around so each person was served. Once a person’s plate was full, they could settle into the happy business of eating. With no conversation going on there was little reason to do much more than eat and one hardly needed to lift one’s head up. I dove in. At one point I had eaten my main course but I was still hungry and the platter holding the main course was sitting on the table several feet away. They had very long tables. If I were at home at a family gathering I would call out in the general direction of the food, “I could use some more chicken. Could you pass it down this way?” But, since we were eating in silence, my normal approach was not going to work. And, then, it happened.
Moments after I looked at the platter with the food, one of my tablemates noticed I was looking and passed the platter in my direction. No words were spoken. No hand gestures were involved. I looked at the food and someone noticed. The monks and those they teach learn to be alert to the needs of others. Their table is not a free-for-all of requests and reaching, of serving oneself. Rather, in that world, the table, a metaphor for much of life and work, is a place where everyone is expected to be alert to the needs of others.
What if that was how a workplace functioned? Instead of everyone focusing solely their own goals, their own team, their own deadlines and deliverables, what if there was an equal emphasis on being alert to what others need – even before they ask? What if your workplace had measures of how well people extended themselves to others and that those measures were given importance at compensation time alongside traditional financial measures? What if the defining question in the work place was, “How can I be of assistance to others?” Leaders in organizations often talk about the importance of a positive culture. There may be some important lessons to be learned about work place altruism and they may be found in unlikely places, even a monastery.