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Quaker Influence on Business and Nonprofit Organizations


From: David Hurst
Subject: Re: IMAGINIZE Digest - 13 Jan 1997 to 12 Mar 1997 Uses of Silence

To: IMAGINIZE@YORKU.CA


Hi to all readers,

William Johnson asks about the uses of silence in organizations and I felt moved to speak (write): the best example I have is that of the Quakers, who begin all their meetings (religious and business) with silence.

They started as a religious movement in the mid 17th century in the turbulent aftermath of the English Civil War. Their central theme was the rejection of external authority and tradition as a spiritual guidance. Thus they rejected the hierarchy and ritual of the Catholic and Anglican Churches as well as the Old Testament. From the New Testament they made use mostly of the Book of John, because of the emphasis on Christ as being present in real time, and the Sermon on the Mount. They were totally egalitarian to the extent that they rejected professional clergy ("hireling priests") - each Quaker had to find her/his own way to the Spirit. They were also remarkably open to members of other religions - Jews, Moslems etc.

The Quaker meeting became their mode (or "node") of organization for via connections with other meetings it became a dynamic loosely-coupled network. In meetings their distrust of authority caused them to shun all trappings of formal control - agendas, texts, prepared statements, verbal formulations of any kind. Meetings began in silence and continued until someone felt "moved to speak". The two greatest sins were to speak if not moved and not to speak if moved. With our incessant meetings and packed agendas this sounds incredible inefficient but what the Quakers were interested in was surfacing deeply held concerns. The silence and absence of structure together with shared values and mutual trust supplied an environment in which this could happen.

When religious persecution abated toward the end of the 17th century the Quakers emerged as the most talented group of entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution. They dominated the iron and (later) steel industries and their egalitarianism and trustworthiness allowed them to found the financial service industry. Both Barclays and Lloyds began their lives as Quaker institutions. They also came to dominate transatlantic trade through their "Atlantic Community" - the Boston Tea Party was "held" aboard two Quaker ships! A significant number of English businesses have Quaker roots - ICI, British Steel, Cadburys. Rowntrees, Clarks, Huntley & Palmer, Price Waterhouse, J. Walter Thompson to name a few. In the US they were active in iron and steel (Lukens and Bethlehem) as well as retail (Macy's) and a host of other businesses.

The Quakers used the same meeting format in their business meetings so that items of real concern could be discussed. Members were grilled on their trading practices by their peers. Over time the meetings became well known for regulating the ethical behaviour of their members and conversely membership of the meeting became a guarantee of ethical business practices. Consumers flocked to Quaker-owned stores, banks etc. because they could rely on the quality, prices and the integrity of the owners. In fact the Quakers may have invented the concept of the market price - for ethical not economic reasons. The Quaker meeting is probably the origin of our Western form of corporate governance via boards and meetings. Although when one looks at the highly orchestrated charades that corporate AGMs have become, it is clear that while we may have retained the structure we have lost the process completely.

It is almost inconceivable to think of using silence in this way at meetings today, although I understand that Scott Peck and his community building colleagues use silence regularly in their activities. There are also some brave consultants around who sometimes try to use the "pressure of silence" to get to the real issues in organizations - it does require a lot of trust and special circumstances. An interesting variation can be found in the 5th Discipline Fieldbook where people sit in a circle wearing airline type blindfolds so that speakers cannot be immediately identified visually. Listening skills become paramount as members cannot be distracted by doodling etc. I have never run a meeting this way but I understand it's incredibly intense: there are fewer interruptions and people realize how critical the perceived status of the speaker is in their reception of what is said.

There is much more on the Quakers and dialogue in my book "Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change" (Harvard Business School Press, 1995)

Best wishes,

David Hurst
(dhurst1046@aol.com)


Revised June 3, 1997, by C.S.