This article was originally published by Booz & Company
The idea of using mindfulness as a guide to better business practices has taken on such currency as a management fad lately that it already has a detractor: The New Republic’s Silicon Valley curmudgeon, Evgeny Morozov. Known for his skepticism about Internet-fueled democracy, Morozov has penned a new article called “The Mindfulness Racket,” in which he claims that workplace meditation—the leading edge of the fad—is a weak substitute for the substantial change that businesses really need.
He doesn’t try to argue that mindfulness is ineffective in itself (though he does diminish it as mere “unplugging”). He can’t claim ineffectiveness because the evidence is clear that it helps business people become more aware of their own thinking, especially in the high-pressure atmosphere of a mainstream corporate workplace. For example, a group of INSEAD professors recently found that meditation before a major decision leads to better outcomes. That’s why leadership experts like Tony Schwartz and Daniel Goleman continue to write about mindfulness as a powerful and constructive technique.
I began to associate mindfulness with workplace effectiveness in the early 2000s when I began attending the Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA) Institute Summer Leadership Intensive sessions, which take place each June. (I co-teach a class on Catalyzing Organizational Change with David Sable, a researcher of contemplative practice.) ALIA’s sessions, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and a great deal of real-world business and social change experience, are based in part on the idea that mindfulness is a collective game.
Organizations can be designed, in fact, to foster contemplative awareness in every aspect of their processes and practices. For example, imagine a mindful approach to email. Mindfulness, as David Rock and neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz eloquently pointed out in strategy+business, is a technique for managing attention density: using the focus of your concentration to influence your habitual neural patterns to shift in constructive ways. Anything that consistently helps you distinguish constructive from destructive thoughts has a beneficial effect, which often ripples out to a larger group.
But email does the opposite. An email client program treats every incoming message the same. Even the smartest filtering system cannot rank the incoming messages by their constructive value. If you’re like me, working your way down the queue is an ongoing battle between the drive to pay attention to each message—and what it will demand from you—and the drive to process it quickly with as little attention as possible. Half the task is deciding what value each message has. The steady drip, drip, drip of email becomes almost like background noise—an inescapable burden of daily life—and retaining mindfulness while making decisions in that context can be challenging.
All the petty organizational structures—the use of email for making decisions, the bureaucratic systems that inhibit experimentation, the dozens of legacy IT systems that don’t quite work together, and so on—are the true enemy of mindfulness in the workplace. Trying to manage these systems is to recognize the truth of the Buddhist maxim, “Life is suffering.” Mindfulness can help ameliorate this state of affairs, but only if it’s managed at the group or collective level.
All the petty organizational structures are the true enemy of mindfulness in the workplace.
You’ve probably seen this happen in your organization; I certainly have. A few years ago, the leaders of our firm, Booz & Company, decided to resolve a pernicious company-wide habit: using email to share knowledge. Someone facing a problem would send out a wide-ranging email asking for help. The firm’s intranet (called “InsideBooz”) was intended to serve as a knowledge system, but people did not consistently make use of it, either to post their experiences (with confidential information removed) or to learn from others. Any knowledge-based company—which, these days, means any company—needs to cultivate its employees’ ability to learn from each other. So leaders at Booz set out to make InsideBooz easier to use with the hopes of encouraging employees to utilize it. They redesigned the software, but more importantly, they put a cultural change effort in place: identifying the behaviors that really helped, gently but persistently guiding people to use them, and setting out to change those mindless practices one team at a time.
It happened so slowly that, at first, it seemed like nothing was happening (except, of course, for people in the thick of it). But step by step, awareness grew. Sharing knowledge this way, rather than with urgent emails, really did make a difference. In fact, it made people feel more capable because they were more aware of their own skill base.
Now, in those rare instances when emails come through asking for help with a project, the first response is likely to be: “Have you checked InsideBooz?” This practice has become part of daily life at the firm, and it showed many of us that we could be mindful when we needed to be. No meditation required.
Today, it should be feasible to design email programs—and many other aspects of business life—to foster a kind of meta-awareness, inferring how meaningful a question is from our response to it and sorting future queries accordingly. More research is needed on fostering organizational structures that cultivate mindfulness instead of undermining them. We don’t know enough about these practices, but we recognize them when we see them. They’re the practices that feel like the opposite of having 100 new emails in your inbox, and not knowing which to answer first. With better structures in place, maybe people will be able to shake themselves up a bit and gain the mental capacity they need to collectively tackle the endemic problems—like strategic purpose, workplace equity, and customer satisfaction—that we should put front and center.