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Trappist Monks' Lessons for HR




​Mike O'Brien is an employment lawyer who has helped HR professionals resolve workplace legal issues for over three decades. For most of that time, he has been a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member and has served as a chapter and state council legal/legislative director. He has also served on regional and national SHRM committees focused on government and legislative affairs.

Recently, O'Brien published Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks (Paraclete Press, 2021). It tells his story of growing up amid Trappist monks, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, who lived near his home in rural northern Utah.

The book addresses a number of universal themes, such as overcoming adversity, being open to unexpected friendships and finding a sustainable life pathway. Knowing O'Brien's work with HR, however, I asked him what specific lessons he took away from his experiences with the monks that might prove useful for HR professionals.

Mentorship Is Not Just a Transaction

As a boy and young man, O'Brien helped the monks in their small bookstore and on their 1,800-acre farm. They let him follow them around as they worked, introduced him to the basics of that work, trusted him to do it, praised him when he did well and taught him to do better when he did not do so well.

"It is a classic example of good mentoring. I knew the monks cared about me and about my success," O'Brien said. "As a result, I trusted and valued their feedback, listened to them and grew/matured as a member of their extended community."

O'Brien thinks "the lesson for us in HR is that good mentoring requires a similar type of investment of time, talent, trust and treasure from all involved. Mentoring is not just a transaction; it is a relationship."

Promises, Commitments and Employee Engagement

O'Brien also noted that the Trappists were some of the most engaged "employees" he'd ever worked with. Some of those monks stayed, lived and worked at the Utah monastery for 60 or 70 years—an entire lifetime. Why?

O'Brien believes this engagement flowed, at least in part, from the vows or promises the monks made and kept. The Utah Trappists took vows of celibacy, poverty, obedience, stability (promising to remain a member of their community), and conversion of manners (to change and live the monastic life to its fullest). O'Brien said the vows created "a framework that gave definition and meaning to work and to life, and that made both worthwhile."

Most of us will never live in a monastery, and we even may doubt whether cloistered monks have much practical advice to offer about work in the outside world. O'Brien, however, believes that once properly translated for a life (or a workplace) beyond the abbey, the Trappist vows provide an intriguing secular pathway, too.

O'Brien explained that the Trappist vow of obedience really means "to listen and focus on others." The vow of stability means "to build and sustain community." Poverty means "to live with greater simplicity and more compassion." Celibacy outside a monastery means "to act with devotion in relationships." Finally, the monastic vow of conversion of manners means to "develop self-understanding and try to grow from it—to change for the better."

"When I consider those translated vows," O'Brien told me, "I cannot help but think that any employer would want (and would greatly benefit from) employees who promise to listen better, seek to build/sustain a workplace community, work with greater simplicity and compassion, show devotion to their job, and develop a self-understanding that facilitates growth and change."

In O'Brien's view, employee engagement comes from "a full and complete commitment to a group mission and set of identified goals." First, however, you have to identify both that mission and those goals. O'Brien believes the Trappists "did both exceedingly well."

A commitment to principle is not unheard of outside the monastic setting. For example, although they are not "vows" in the strictest sense, O'Brien noted that several of his employment law business clients ask their employees to follow certain defined core values. One of those clients focuses on these six principles: sincere communication, the idea that people make the difference, integrity, resilience, inclusion, and trust and empowerment.

In another book about the Trappists—Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO's Quest for Meaning and Authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2013)—business executive and entrepreneur August Turak explained that monks are successful not despite their high principles, but rather because of them. O'Brien agrees, and told me, "There is much merit in trying to make our workplaces a little more principled, a little more monk-like."

A Final HR Lesson from the Monks

In his book, O'Brien quotes Trappist monk David Altman on how to succeed in a monastery: "The monk must put forth great effort to make many relationships work and to grow through them; … this is challenging work."

For me, Altman's observation captures HR at its best. When HR puts forth great effort to make the relationships in its organizations work, grow and develop, it provides an invaluable service to organization health and well-being. And yes, as Altman notes, it is challenging.

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of Organization Development Network Oregon and was named by Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.

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