This article is drawn from The Monday Christian podcast series, in which Paul Kim and Sibs Sibanda explore the ways we can practically, thoughtfully, faithfully, and fruitfully connect the dots between Sundays and the rest of the week. Sibs Sibanda is the Managing Director at Nexus Open Systems in Harare, and the Executive Director of the Faith and Work Alliance. Over the last 20 years, he planted and led a number of churches in Johannesburg and Harare, while also working as a strategy consultant and business developer for various organisations.
The purpose of this article is to highlight the importance of perspective on our approach to business. We’ll explore the relationship between perspective and worldview, and touch on a few business applications. The basic premise of this article is that all actions flow from our beliefs, which are shaped by our perspectives, which in turn are informed by our worldview. Basically, a worldview is how we view the world – it is the fundamental set of ideas about the nature of reality that informs the way we make sense of the world.
Here’s a simple example. Consider the popular acronym YOLO (you only live once). It is easy to see how such an outlook on reality encourages a ‘no holds barred’ approach to life, where seizing any opportunity for self-gratification, with little or no regard for long term consequences is applauded. Contrast this with the biblical conception of reality, where life on earth, though fleeting, has eternal consequences – where physical death is not the end of our existence, but a doorway to a future shaped by the decisions we make here and now. Clearly, these two perspectives will lead to different behaviour.
On the face of it, perspective is a fairly simple idea – it is a particular way of seeing something, it is a point of view. The complexity is in trying to appreciate how that point of view is formed, let alone changed, which places us squarely in the philosophical realm of epistemology (the study of knowledge – of how we come to know what we know).
In his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame introduces a distinctly Christian epistemology which we will appropriate and apply to our thinking on business. His approach, known as ‘triperspectivalism’, is an attempt to harmonise a high view of Scripture and the common sense observation that human beings also come to know and learn through experience and discovery.
According to this approach, our perspective on anything is, in fact, a fusion of three – the normative, situational, and existential perspectives:
Consider for example, the clear instruction in Colossians 4:1, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven”. So as a Christian business owner thinking about your payroll, your normative perspective is clear – you must pay what is fair and just. However, in working out how this translates to dollars, Rands, or shillings, you need to consider several (situational) factors such as state-regulated wage structures, industry norms, inflation levels, and historic or structural injustices. So, where Christians might agree on the normative perspective, there will certainly be differing interpretations of the situational realities. And then finally, the existential perspective introduces your personal experiences, philosophy, and biases – many of which are not perfectly aligned to your professed normative perspective.
Notice how, in our day-to-day business affairs, the situational and existential perspectives can easily overshadow the normative when we do not, as the psalmist says, “meditate on the law of the Lord, day and night” (Psalm 1), and when we do not allow our perspective to be shaped by those with relevant situational knowledge and different existential realities. Your overriding perspective on wages, for example, may be that you will pay what you can, because after all, it is better for your employees than being unemployed (existential). Or you may take the view that the wages you pay are higher than a few other businesses you know, therefore you do not need to consider raising them (situational). In both cases, you have drowned out the normative instruction from Colossians 4, and have essentially adopted the world’s wisdom in your approach to business.
A Bible-centered approach does not require that we ignore situational and existential realities, but rather, that we interpret them through the normative lens of Scripture, and act accordingly.
Perspective as a lens
Let us distil these big ideas into a simple analogy. Suppose that our perspective is like a pair of glasses, where:
We can say that becoming a Christian is like being given a new set of clear lenses – clear in the sense that Scripture becomes our normative perspective. Now we can see the Father, Son, and Spirit for who they are, sin for what it truly is, and ourselves for who we once were and have now become. As we look through this lens, we can see old things in new ways. We have a renewed understanding of what is wrong with the world, what God’s solution is, and what role we have to play, given the resources he has entrusted to us – including our businesses. However, this clarity is not only limited by the degree to which we keep the lenses clean, but also by the ‘proportion’ and ‘focus’ settings on our lenses, which are the product of our learning and life experiences (and the ‘clarity’ or lack thereof through which we have previously interpreted these things).
Needless to say, the process of cleaning our lenses, and adjusting their proportion and focus, is a lifelong pursuit – one Scripture refers to as ‘sanctification’. The point is that for the Christian, this journey of sanctification involves our work life as much as any other aspects of our lives. In other words, our perspective on business has normative, situational, and existential elements, which all need to be constantly renewed.
Going back to the lens analogy, the clarity of our lenses is maintained by immersing ourselves in Scripture and sound teaching. And although many can say, as the rich young ruler did, “these things I have done since I was a child,” (Matthew 19:20) what we’re emphasising here is not generic biblical knowledge, but (biblically) normative truth concerning business.
The ‘proportion’ and ‘focus’ of our lenses cannot be adjusted in isolation. Personal, cultural, and societal biases are the ‘hilltops’ that we stand on in order to gain perspective, and as such, we are invariably oblivious to them. It is only through honest dialogue and reflection with people whose (tri)perspectives are both similar and different to our own, that we can rightfully discern and address the biases that shape our own point of view.
Peter Drucker, a famous American management consultant who made significant contributions to the foundations of modern management thinking, once famously said that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” What he meant was that strategy is applied and executed in the context of a company’s culture. In other words, whatever strategy you wish to apply to your business can never rise above the culture that you have established in your business.
Going back to the premise of this article, which is that actions flow from belief – culture (which simply describes how we do things) is clearly a product of perspective. So, using Drucker’s terminology we can say that ‘Perspective eats Culture for breakfast’. Bringing it all together, we see that Strategy flows from Culture, and that Culture flows from Perspective. And thus Perspective lies at the heart of all strategic efforts.
Let’s apply this with a simplistic example of how, as a business owner, your perspective of human beings can determine your culture and strategy. If your perspective of people is that they are generally lazy and lacking in imagination and creativity, you will create a culture of control and fear-based motivation, which will in turn force you to employ micro-management strategies to keep your employees in check and productive. Incidentally, this will affect the type of people who are attracted (or not) to join your workforce.
Suppose that, in looking to expand your business, it becomes obvious to you that you need creative, initiative-takers. The first thing to do would be to change your perspective on the people you already have, because your culture of control and micro-management style may have been stifling that creativity and initiative-taking all along. A change in perspective will allow you to reform your culture from control to empowerment, and your strategy from micro-management to shared responsibility. Not only will this unearth the hidden talent in your ranks, but will attract the type of talent that is required to grow your business.
So in changing your perspective, your normative belief about human beings must be re-aligned to Scripture, your situational understanding will most likely require external input, and your existential awareness can be improved by simply taking an interest in your employees as human beings and discovering their stories.
Many businesses talk about change and innovation. This article shows that real world change is driven by changes in perspective, which must take into account not only cognitive belief, but situational factors and existential realities. By necessity, this endeavour is achieved (or at least attempted) in community, among people who cannot only clarify our normative convictions, but help us to find just the right ‘proportion’ and ‘focus’ in our lenses as we look to make sense of the world, and engage redemptively with it through our work.