Opinion: Beliefs have power in business

Ari Weinzweig

For as much as I’ve studied, taught and written about both business and self-management over the years, up until recently I’d hardly paid a coffee cup’s worth of attention to the ways in which beliefs were impacting my world. I have shared much of my learnings over the years in the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series, covering mission, vision, values, culture, Servant Leadership, self-management, creativity, anarchism and a whole lot more. And yet it’s only in the last few years that beliefs are finally getting their just due.

The view of the Detroit skyline is absolutely stunning from this penthouse condo at the top of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel building.

It turns out that I’d “discovered” a major player in the drama and dreams that make up my life, both personally and professionally. It was as if I’d been focusing on the play itself, the lines of the script, and the way actors sounded from the stage, but altogether ignoring the playwright who wrote the words and set the stage — literally and figuratively — for them to all be there doing what they do. That changed when I began to dial into the details and depths of what I believe, and to look into what others around me believed as well. It blew my mind. And it’s already having a big impact on our organization.

Although they don’t have their own line on the balance sheet, beliefs abound in the business world. But since few of us actually acknowledge them for what they are, or understand their import, they’re essentially invisible. Beliefs, though, are where almost every action, conscious and unconscious, begins. Whether we know it or not, our beliefs create — for better and for worse — the complex reality in which we struggle to succeed every day.

When I talk about beliefs here, I’m not referring to religion, sports or politics. I’m interested, for these purposes, in issues we discuss less often. I’m exploring what we believe about ourselves, about our products, about people in general and our co-workers in particular. What we believe about the marketplace, competition and organizational culture. And if you want to — as I have — carry this work into your personal life, and looking at what we believe about our lives, significant others, kids, what success means, etc. Suffice it to say that literally everything about our organizations — and our lives — is based on beliefs. As psychologist William James wrote: “Belief creates the actual fact.”

Here are two lessons that I have learned, through understanding my own beliefs:

In the course of researching beliefs, I started to see them in three broad categories. Negative, neutral and positive. Negative beliefs create negative outcomes. Neutral beliefs don’t do a whole lot. Positive beliefs create positive outcomes. You simply can’t get positive outcomes out of negative beliefs. You can generate a lot of short-term energy out of negative beliefs. But energy that emerges from negative beliefs will either just flame out and die, or keep us trapped in back and forth, no-win, cycles of pain and emotional violence.

A great healthy sustainable organization, I started to realize, can only be built on positive beliefs.

And we can change our beliefs! Once we know we have beliefs, become mindful of what they are and understand how much impact they’re having on our lives, we may likely realize — as I did on my many subjects — that what we believe is creating a lot of the reality that we often don’t like. And that the most effective way to change our daily reality is to not to try to get others around us to change, but to look inward, to change what we believe. An Irish philosopher John O’Donohue wrote, “the way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life.”

Ari Weizweig is the co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and the author of “Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4” and “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business.”