Business and Mindfulness

In a recent edition of The Economist the Schumpeter column, The Mindfulness Business (16/11/13), discusses the uses of meditation in business contexts particularly in high-tech settings, as a way of helping employees find a moment of peace in a hectic working environment.

There is much to be said for encouraging meditation. I meditate, using a Zen technique called shikantaza, which is a simple sitting meditation with a focus on the mind itself. It is easy to begin to do, but after many years I certainly would not claim to have mastered it. The benefits from meditation are well documented (a comprehensive account can be found in James H. Austins’ Zen and the Brain (Austin 1998)). Meditation can help us with:

  • attention
  • focus
  • concentration
  • dealing with stress
  • listening skills
  • empathy
  • ethical awareness

For some discussion, the Wikipedia article on research on meditation is helpful.

However, what is interesting is the use of the word ‘mindfulness’ in the Economist’s article. ‘Mindfulness’ has become a popular topic in some areas of psychology and therapy, where aspects of the core idea have been applied to help individuals develop better strategies for living with stress or anxiety. However in essence mindfulness is a key Buddhist concept that goes beyond just meditating and psychology and has an active practice component. To be and to act mindfully is to pay much greater attention to the details and context of what we think, say and do. Mindfulness is thinking, speaking and acting through compassion, wisdom and awareness of what is really before us in the world, trying to see what is beyond our internal concerns and mental chatter. Meditation is part of the means for living more mindfully by quietening that chatter, but it is not the whole picture, because mediation can become something that occurs on comfortable cushions in silent rooms, disconnected from the world. In this respect mindfulness has a real application to business and management, but focusing on mediation will not fully capture this idea.

So what would it mean to do business or to manage in a mindful way?

The first thing to note is that the central focus of all business activity should be other beings. That is, other people and other sentient beings. Nothing in this excludes looking at money or material goods or services, but the starting point for mindful engagement with the world begins with wisdom and compassion for others. The aim of every thought, communication and action for the mindful manager would be to make things better for someone or for some group of people in a way that realised, to some degree at least, the connectedness of life. While this sounds somewhat grand, principally it simply means ensuring that what we do has some benefit and causes the least harm, so far as we possibly can. So, for example, mindfulness in practice is:

  • trying to see another’s point of view through empathy, to really understand their views from their side rather than our reconstruction of what we think they mean;
  • taking a second before speaking to ask whether good is actually being done, rather than simply waiting for an opportunity to express our ‘deeply-valued’ opinion in order to be heard;
  • viewing the wider context of our business and management decisions to see their impact on the environment, whether that is the physical or natural environment, the intellectual space we work in, the climate and culture of our organisation, or the economy of our nation.

It can include being aware of the tone of voice we use with others, the way we lay aside a pen in a meeting, the choice to think that a colleague we do not get along with will have their own issues and problems in life and is as deserving of our empathy as everyone else.

Were businesses to take mindfulness beyond the set-aside meditation room into their office, to real practice and real world engagement, positive change is almost certain to follow in terms of improved working relationships and culture, better environmental awareness and action, and, dare I suggest, greater business success through enhanced awareness of customer needs.

Reference

Austin, James H. 1998: Zen and the brain : toward an understanding of meditation and consciousness. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press.