Is Real Mindfulness Possible in Today’s Business Culture?

I’m a believer.

Living more mindfully has changed my perspective on life.  I practice (and practice) and I support others, whenever possible, to find the ways that work for them to be more mindful.
My motivation, of course, is deeply personal – as everyone’s should be. But I have another “agenda.” When I look around at the state of the world, the statistics on depression, violence and on a less dramatic note – workplace engagement – I conclude that something’s got to give.  More mindful cultures, in general, are surely desirable, right?

But when I think of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition, “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” I have to wonder what the corporate world expects from a more mindful work force?

While a steady stream of articles continue to point out the many benefits of mindfulness, the release of David Gelles, new book, Mindful Work, has created a real uptick in interest from the corporate world.  This should be welcome news to professionals like me who hope to find more receptive audiences for developing greater mindful awareness as a foundation for deeper levels of change.But I also worry that the overselling and simplification of mindfulness will create unrealistic expectations – for the practitioner and the “investor” (namely the business buying the services for their employees).
There’s a growing chorus of concerned observers of this current phenomenon (naysayers aside) like author Joe Keohane who questions corporate intent in his New Republic essay, In Praise of Meaningless Work, “Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime and good hours.  It’s easy to see how meditation could serve a similarly ideological purpose as an enabler of workaholic culture, rather than a counterweight to it – making a bad situation just a little more bearable, and therefore, in the long run, perpetuating.”

While Keohane’s conclusions might seem cynical, employee disengagement is a serious problem across industries with few solutions in sight. Studies show that employees suffering from high stress levels have lower engagement, are less productive and have higher absenteeism levels than those not working under excessive pressure.
The bottom line is that escalating levels of dis-engagement erode productivity.  Some corporate leaders, sensing the decline of workplace “buy-in,” might be eager to bolster the skill-sets and spirits of employers with the promise of more mindful cultures.

As Keohane points out, “More output at next to no cost. And thus did the word ring out: Ours will no longer be a future of rote compliance with company objectives, pursued ceaselessly in a deadening, musty cubicle farm. Ours will be jobs bursting with meaning.  Meaning and productivity. But especially productivity.”
While employers may be right to assume that a more mindful workforce will be more focused and less stressed, it will take comprehensive and sustained organizational efforts that go way beyond practicing mindfulness to humanize the workplace.   Mindfulness is no substitute for “normal” work hours, fair compensation and cultures that foster transparency and respect.

Environment is Stronger than Will Power

As mindfulness, which emanates from ethical and religious roots, continues to be mainstreamed into more sellable packages, important questions are raised about exactly what is being practiced.  Is mindfulness simply a stress-reduction technique?  Is meditation just a short reprieve from the grind of daily work life?  Is the essence of mindfulness practice just another strategy to become more productive and efficient?  While there’s nothing wrong with any of these motivations, committing to a more mindful life is the only way that deep and sustainable change is possible.

In Mindful Work – Am to PM, I wrote that mindfulness “practice” begins the moment we open our eyes in the morning reminding ourselves that we can live this day more consciously – with more intentional purpose than yesterday. The beauty of mindfulness is that NOW is always the start of the practice. The practice is the challenge of remembering to bring ourselves back to the present moment – as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, non-judgmentally.

This is the great challenge of living more mindfully.  While even 5 minutes of sitting practice will help build the muscle of mindfulness, it’s responding differently to the onslaught of daily potential stressors that enriches the practice. As the great Hindu teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda reminded us, “Environment is stronger than will power. “

We have huge expectations of quick-fixes in this culture. Often we don’t believe change is possible because we can’t hang in there to do the hard work it takes over time. One of the great benefits of maintaining a mindfulness practice is the development of greater discipline.  And while the word can evoke punitive connotations, it’s from this disciplined practice of grounding that more calmness and focus arises.
Understanding the motivation for a mindfulness practice is fundamental to its establishment. What we want from the experience should be the salient question.  Committing to a mindfulness practice isn’t the same as taking on an exercise routine. Though increasingly couched as “mental fitness” comparable to physical fitness, the practice of mindfulness is a very different level of experience.
Mindfulness is an intimate experience. When we commit to going deeper, we allow ourselves to open to thoughts and feelings that have often been distracted, diverted and even repressed.  The essence of mindfulness is a delicate balance of letting go of cognitive control, on one hand, while consciously strengthening it on the other.  The “choice” to not become attached to the multiple thoughts and feelings that arise during mindfulness meditation takes time, care and ultimately self-compassion.

Gently observing the mind’s wanderings and habits without interpretation or “taking action” isn’t easy. It’s the natural tendency of the mind to want to problem-solve. In many ways, when we “submit” to allowing pure mindfulness, we’re relinquishing patterns of control we’ve mentally and emotionally enforced for many years.

Often the submission or allowance to the mind’s unpredictability meets the resistance of the part of the mind that vies for the control that is always illusive.  When we get into the weeds of mindfulness practice, we find that growing our sense of emotional awareness is critical. Not for the purposes of analysis, rather to better observe what feelings drive us when we’re not actively practicing.

The critical element of learning to observe – non-judgmentally – relieves the mind of its constant vigilance to defend itself against its perceived threats.
Once we accept this premise as critical to the process, programs imposed through employers – which inevitably carry expectations for specific results – can change the very nature of the process.  Of course this also depends on how programs are presented and how they are taught. If I work in a very high stress environment, like a critical care unit in a hospital or air traffic control, simply learning how to control stress through better breathing techniques is a laudable employee benefit.


Many observers of the trajectory of modern forms of mindfulness raise important questions about its mainstreaming, especially within business environments.
In their article Beyond Mindfulness, Ron Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and David Loy, a Zen teacher point out that “Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions.”

Loy and Purser’s concern should be at the heart of why any senior leader or organization makes the choice to introduce mindfulness programs into their culture. And it’s a question that every trainer should be asking organizations as part of their assessment process as well.  They believe that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.”

While I don’t share the same level of skepticism as Loy, Purser and other critics, I do believe that promoting mindfulness within organizational settings should be accompanied by a much more thorough analysis of assumptions and expectations as to cultural context – and anticipated outcomes.

As neuroscience continues to show the links between well-being and mindfulness and compassion practices, companies will adopt more “techniques” to serve their purposes.
Corporate leaders like Kelly Palmer, head of “talent transformation and inclusion” at LinkedIn gave a talk entitled “Fostering empathetic connection: lessons from compassion efforts at LinkedIn” which included the information that “sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is to let an employee go.”  Palmer believes that there is a convergence of work and personal life. People are never really off, so we have to address the whole person. And if we can help people, it helps employee retention. Anything that helps people personally has benefits that apply to the whole company.”

Palmer’s rationale is influenced by a belief that incoming generations expect more than high-tech offices and nice lunches – they want meaning.
I hope they will also want a personal life.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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