Hard matter: Heart matters

by Isabel Rimanoczy / As an educator, I spend time reflecting on the complicated world for which we are called to prepare students. Today we “know” more than before about the problems, causes, consequences, & urgency of our planetary challenges, and in our management courses we make sure that students step into that body of knowledge.  We also realize the urgency to act – to innovate, mitigate, adapt & reinvent – and  for that, we guide, mentor and support our students to engage in all sorts of practical projects.

Yet it seems that something is still missing.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that it is not enough to focus on processes and institutions; we need foremost to change our mindset. The Sustainability Mindset is defined as a way of thinking, and being that leads to actions for the greater good.  OK, thinking and acting but …Being?

The obvious, and yet the odd

Melbourne University Professor Karhtyeni Sridaran notes that being is not “just one more component.” The being dimension comprises our values, purpose, higher self, and consciousness, and is at the root of all our thinking and acting. Many years ago, a group of scholars realized that the “being” dimension was conspicuously missing from academic conversations. They created the Academy of Management  group for Management, Spirituality and Religion, with the vision of “Human flourishing and global consciousness that illuminates-and are illuminated by-spiritual and religious dimensions of life in management research, teaching, and practice.”

Subsequently, almost eight years ago, a community of practice made up of scholars interested in a more holistic approach (head, hands AND heart) became the PRME Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset, which today has nearly 200 members in 55 countries.

And since 2017, the  International Humanistic Management Association, focused on dignity and wellbeing convened over 4500  scholars in another movement based on a similar holistic concern. Today PRME has its own Humanistic Management Working Group.

What these initiatives offer is lexicon –  a new language to identify, name and discuss the soft matters of heart and soul for which institutional education has not yet prepared us.

I am not a counselor

I can almost hear it: I am an accountant, a professor of operations management, of statistics, marketing or macroeconomics. My expertise is preparing students in these specific technical domains, and helping them develop the skills to put this knowledge into action. What can I impart about heart and soul?

Michigan University professor Andy Hoffman asks an interesting question: You teach business, yes, but for what purpose? He invites us to open a conversation about the ultimate purpose of what we do, and by doing so, we can start connecting what our discipline-oriented approach to knowledge has organized in unconnected silos:  What we do + why we do it + for what larger goal, and how does this serve our life-purpose, who we want to be, and the difference we want to make in the world

In 2008, while I was researching the motivations of several business leaders to switch from the status quo to engaging and championing a more sustainable way of operating their organizations, I came across a few surprises. My interview protocols explored what they knew and what information they had, yet their stories revealed an unexpected dimension. It was not merely “what” they had learned about planetary unsustainability; rather, the core element in the transformation of their perspective was how they felt about that information. The emotional chord (be it guilt, embarrassment, dismay, anger, grief, or concern) was connected with how they saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen and remembered by their loved ones. They reflected on their values, and whether they were acting on their intellect, or also guided by their heart. These thoughts and emotions fueled their motivation to do something atypical and controversial – to advocate for radical changes that elevated the community and the environment as equal stakeholders to be considered when making decisions.

Since then, much has changed in our world. Sustainability has become a common term in our daily vocabulary, and the urgency to address climate change has made itself known for all everywhere.

Some have even alerted to the importance of considering not only how to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but how to do so while paying equal attention to the deterioration of the ecosystem. Former US Secretary of Treasury, Henry Paulson, rang the alarm bell that we are facing two crises yet focusing predominantly on only one. Climate change is the first, and its causes and catastrophic consequences are understood. The second crisis however is less well known. The collapse of biodiversity impacts “the sum of all things living on the planet.” Addressing the believers in human ingenuity and innovation, Paulson notes that for the biodiversity crisis “there are no technological fixes[….] and no cost-effective, man-made replacements for natural systems like wetlands, which provide protection against floods, replenish groundwater reserves and filter the water that flows through them.”  Or as Janine Benyus, champion of biomimicry, once put it: “try to design Spring.”

And then there’s the perspective of the strategic liability of corporate social and environmental un-sustainability. Leaders need to quickly get trained in the understanding of the potential reputational and financial cost of decisions that until recently were both legal and unquestioned but are fast becoming a potential PR bombshell.

Finally, adding yet more complexity to  the previously mentioned weighty context, we are witnessing a profound tendency towards polarization, as expressed in the difficulty to talk, listen and understand each other.

What is our role?

Addressing the “being” dimension is precisely this -acknowledging emotions, creating prompts and opportunities for reflection and dialogue, and designing spaces to learn and practice active, deep listening. It is also holding a space – a safe space -where feelings and vulnerabilities can be shared without being debated, judged or “fixed.” Inviting the heart into the classroom does not mean solving personal traumas, nor “dealing” with the emotions of the students. It is merely inviting them to be fully present.

Moreover, connecting with the heart is not just about feelings. It is also passion and the path to the best version of ourselves. It is where inspiration arises and where empathy and compassion are developed. You don’t have to say the “L” word… but can all these songs about love be wrong?

We have all seen firsthand the glazed-over looks of our students in class… until, suddenly, something wakes them up, and grabs their full attention. It may be a personal story of vulnerability, a window into a human feeling, or a word about hope – something engages their heart. It may sound harder to do than it actually is, but our role is to bring this missing piece into the classroom– yes, heart matters.

Isabel Rimanoczy is an academic focused on accelerating evolutionary change. She is the convener of PRME’s Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset. She can be reached at IsabelRimanoczy@gmail.com and http://www.IsabelRimanoczy.net

2 thoughts on “Hard matter: Heart matters

  1. Dear Isabel,
    I love your reflections and they remind me to Erich Fromm’s “To Have or To Be”. However, from my own experience I think our main task as a teacher (esp. in business studies) is to connect these inspirational concepts and ideas with the challenges of everyday (business) life where scarcity, conflicts, dilemmata etc. prevail. What hinders us to be responsible, sustainable etc. (or to love – just to refer to you as well as another famous book of Fromm)? And how can we cope with these impediments? Or to put it in a question related to our theories: How come that respect is one of the most fundamental values for human beings and yet you’ll find nearly no textbook on business studies which deals with this value in a systematical way?
    There is a lot for us to explore.
    Best,
    Andreas

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