Doing business the Quaker way – by Bob Harwood

The Quaker way of doing business is often cited as one of the important techniques that Quakers can offer the world. By this we do not, of course, mean something Doing business the Quaker way – by Bob Harwood

The Quaker way of doing business is often cited as one of the important techniques that Quakers can offer the world. By this we do not, of course, mean something that can be taught at – say – the Harvard Business School that will make us as commercially successful as the Quaker chocolate makers, shoemakers, industrialists and bankers of the past, but rather a distinctive way of conducting our meetings when we have decisions to make about how to organise the Society and what actions to take. Its distinctiveness falls into two categories: the spirit in which the business is conducted, and the techniques or actions used in coming to a decision.

The spirit in which the meeting takes place is intended to be similar to that in which a meeting for worship is held, namely a loving spirit, a tender spirit, a spirit which takes away the occasion for all wars and strife, a spirit of waiting for, listening for, and being obedient to the promptings of “that of God” at the core of one’s being. Even for trivial matters it can remind us that some things are relatively unimportant and should not be struggled over or allowed to divert us from the Society’s main task in supporting each other and the wider community in seeking and finding spiritual wholeness. It reminds us too, for both trivial and weighty matters, that the meeting is not about gaining the upper hand in a dispute by haranguing, insulting, or using abusive or offensive language. Furthermore, in that we seek a result that we are united with, it implies that we should do our best to grapple with the issues, think about them in advance, and be prepared to express any serious misgivings we may have. I think that meeting in that spirit will also lead us to be both supportive and forgiving towards those who take on roles in the Society, of whatever kind. We are essentially amateurs operating in a framework which often demands professional standards.

Early Friends came to adopt certain practices or techniques to help our meetings to be held in the right spirit. Some of these often appear baffling or bone-headed to people used to meetings at work or in politics. For instance, there are no votes, so Quaker meetings are not democratic in the conventional meaning of the word, but everyone’s insight can be offered to the meeting.  Moreover, the meeting is open to all, although those who are not members are asked to notify the clerk of their intention to attend. To my mind this is simply a way to help maintain the ethos of the Society, given the openness of the overall process.  People only speak one at a time, stand while speaking – both for better audibility and to discourage irrelevant contributions –  and only when called to do so by the clerk. People are expected to speak only once on a particular point rather than repeating the same point that has been made previously either by themselves or someone else. The clerk (usually with an assistant) chairs the meeting but only to steer Friends through the business, rather than to steer it to a pre-determined decision as might happen in a meeting at work, or at a political or social club.  The aim is not strictly speaking to reach a consensus, but we do seek a position on which we can come to spiritual unity. The minutes – intended to capture the sense of the meeting – are written and agreed communally at the time.

So much for theory, but does it work? Without doubt, these conventions have some difficulties. The process can be protracted. It can feel challenging to the clerks who have to guide the meeting through the business in a timely manner, judging when contributions are drifting and should be curtailed, or whether sufficient time has been given for a measured consideration of the matter. It requires great discipline from those present to recognise whether their own view of the issue is just a personal “bee in the bonnet” or a matter of sufficient importance. (Ask me about an occasion early in one of my times as a clerk, when my inexperience coupled with the intransigence of two members about what should have been a trivial matter led to a disastrous meeting which is still seared onto my mind decades later.)

A further difficulty for the clerk is that finding the sense of the meeting can feel like mind-reading, and having to compose a suitable minute, which will be intelligible not only to those present but to those who weren’t, and to posterity, and to do it while everyone waits, is nerve-racking.  The meeting is asked to “uphold the table” – the clerks not the writing desk –  in prayerful support during this process. Think of it, if you will, as an opportunity to continue a quiet time of meditation. Once a minute is presented, all present have a duty to reflect, and if needs be minister in a tender way, on whether the minute is a truthful reflection of what has emerged. The agreed minute should be accurate and reflect the unity of the meeting, but need not be perfect – just ‘good enough’ to serve as a record of what has been decided. Clerks try to speed the process by arriving at meeting with some minutes already partially drafted, but these often need to be completely revised when the meeting takes unexpected turns.

Challenging as it may be, the method has enormous strengths too. A major foundation of this is that it is truly a collective spiritual enterprise. The whole life, relevance and vibrancy of the Society and the local meeting is not the responsibility of clerks to any greater extent than it is of individual members. There should be no bickering, often seen in meetings in other organisations, about whether the minutes of the previous meeting are accurate, because all who were there have already vouched for them. Similarly, no one can claim that some course of action was steamrolled through, since they will have had ample opportunity to raise their misgivings. Measures to reduce conflict often are very effective in producing changes of attitudes, leading to a successful harmonious outcome. In addition, the philosophy of “don’t just do something; sit there” often gives scope for creative solutions which did not seem to be in anyone’s mind until a period of quiet contemplation allowed them to emerge. I have witnessed several such “breakthroughs” on contentious issues during my time in the Society, and consequently am of the opinion that our business method is one of the Society’s major assets and should be cherished.