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Mindfulness: The Key to Long-term Business Success?

02/08/2013 15:28 BST | Updated 02/10/2013 10:12 BST
flickr: Suicine

"As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world - that is the myth of the atomic age - as in being able to remake ourselves." Mahatma Gandhi

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The further we progress on our journey towards sustainable business, the more fundamental are the challenges and constraints that we encounter.

We may improve compliance, and optimize our eco-efficiency initiatives, but then find we need to address our business models and strategies, if we are to deliver more impact, more benefits.

We may go further still, and explore the need to drive the right behaviours and performance, that will enable our strategies to flourish. But there is one constant; one common denominator in all these processes, organisations, and systems - people.

And so, we reach the ultimate barrier - ourselves - where the only way forward is to go within, and change our internal world. Only then can we move forward to drive the changes that are truly necessary.

An awakening?

Mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist approach to increasing awareness of oneself and one's surroundings. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes, mindfulness is at the heart of awakening, of enlightenment, and is achieved through the practice of breathing and meditation; to be here, in the present moment, so we can recognise what is happening around us, and make conscious choices, so we can act in sustainable ways.

So, how does it work?

On one level, mindfulness can sound deceptively simple; practitioners sit in a comfortable position, close their eyes, and note the physical sensations in their bodies and the flow of thoughts through their minds - they become aware, and in the moment - the aim is to observe these sensations, but in a non-judgemental way, without reacting to them. In time, this allows one to quieten the mind, which should lead to a calmer, clearer, and more focused state.

Into the mainstream

Interestingly, the concept of mindfulness appears to be making inroads into the business world, and is almost, dare I suggest, becoming fashionable. According to Karl Weick at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, "Mindful organisations are better able to manage the unexpected in a challenging, highly competitive environment". This certainly sounds like a good idea, given the massively turbulent times we find ourselves in.

There are certainly some big corporate names that appear to think so, including AOL, Apple, General Mills, Huffington Post, Google, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. Even Steve Jobs, Apple's founder and former CEO, was a Zen Buddhist; and he spoke openly about how his time meditating in India shaped his worldview, and ultimately, Apple's product design.

In her recent interview with Google's Rich Fernandez, Dr Bronwen Rees explores the link between the leadership agenda and wellbeing, mindfulness, and wisdom at Google.

Fernandez started running a few sessions on mindfulness, expecting around 20 to 30 people to show, but 200 turned up. Clearly, he had tapped into something on a deeper level; perhaps a latent need to find a better way? The approach has become increasingly popular, with over 4,000 of Google's 35,000 employees have now taken some form of mindfulness, wisdom, or wellbeing programme.

But this is not just about wellbeing for its own sake. Google is a high performance culture; expectations are high and this requires a robust performance management system. For Google, mindfulness was all about achieving peak performance and optimising productivity through more mindful practices.

Big numbers

For some, this might sound like a bit too hippy-dippy, but according to Professor Mark Williams, the science is now catching up - demonstrating repeatable and spectacular results. Mindfulness can improve wellbeing, and reduce the risk of depression by half.

And then there is the relationship between happiness and productivity. The iOpener Institute carried out a study of a company with 1,000 employees; they found that increasing happiness in the workplace reduces the cost of employee turnover by 46%, the cost of sick leave by 19%, and increases performance and productivity by 12%.

And going further, a key strategic benefit for business also lies in the ability of staff to make better decisions. David Gelles, in a very thorough and interesting piece for the FT, quotes William George, a board member with Goldman Sachs: "The main business case for meditation is that if you're fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader, you will make better decisions, and you will work better with other people."

Better decisions?

This point is intriguing, particularly from the perspective of developing more sustainable business strategies. Better decisions; but better decisions for what, exactly? Can the more sharper, more effective employee deliver more mindful business decisions, for the greater benefit of people and planet, or will it merely increase their capacity to become even more effective capitalists and plunder the planet?

To address this point, we have to go deeper. Mindfulness is not just about meditation and relaxation - to develop sharper, more focused and energised employees - it also challenges some of our belief systems, including some of our most fundamental assumptions about what we do in business, and how we do it.

Let's get back to Thich Nhat Hanh, and the important notion of conscious choices; through his mindfulness trainings, he calls us to make five deep commitments:

  • Cherish all life on Earth - cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect our people ad planet;
  • Practice generosity and social justice - become aware of the suffering cause by exploitation, social injustice and oppression, and commit to cultivate wellbeing of people, animals, plants and minerals;
  • Responsibility in relationships - cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society;
  • Loving speech and deep listening - to bring joy and happiness and relieve others of their suffering; and
  • Mindful consumption and eating - which involves recognising exactly what we need to consume (in all senses of the word), and what not to consume, in order to keep our bodies, minds and the Earth healthy.

If we were all to adopt these teachings in full, there is no doubt in my mind that the effect would be completely transformative. But this will have huge implications for all our businesses, and the ways in which we run our economies.

The consumption challenge

In particular, the notion of mindful consumption, presents a major challenge to our whole economic model and way of life, we have cultured in the West overt the last fifty years or more.

Can we shift towards a low/zero growth model and make the transition away from a damaging and wasteful economy?

As George Monbiot reminds us - we have to do this, anyway - we have to stop hiding behind our eco-efficiency initiatives and deal with the fundamental problem of consumption - it lies at the heart of our key sustainability challenges; of climate change, resource scarcity, and a looming energy crisis.

How might mindfulness help?

As Professor Joel Magnusson, puts it "Mindfulness is calm openness, and at the same time piercing the layers of delusion that have been accumulating, collectively in our minds and institutions." Beautiful.

The implication here is that Mindfulness helps us see past the delusions of a consumer-based and materialistic society, to find a more meaningful, less material approach.

But this, we know, is somewhat at odds with the prevailing corporate business paradigm and our endless pursuit of growth. And while many may privately admit that the goal of endless growth is not sustainable, or even possible; we somehow find it too hard, to move to a different model. And as Jo Confino points out, the fear of radical change and failure holds us back.

Of course, we also know that the current system starts to unravel and ultimately collapse, if we don't achieve continuous growth - a major inherent design flaw that we will have to address, one day. But another reason that makes it feel like a challenge that is just too hard to resolve. We have become addicted to growth.

But there is some great pioneering economic design work by the likes of Peter Victor, Tim Jackson and David Korten, that can help us find a vision and a plan for a better approach. Although, there is less empirical evidence of businesses that have successfully made the transition to a low/no growth economy - optimising, rather than maximising growth.

And while there are an increasing number of businesses getting engaged in the circular economy approach, aiming to maximise the range of resources in use, many of these businesses are still broadly operating within a growth paradigm - still striving towards year-on-year growth in sales.

We may need to come at the challenge form both ends - optimising resource use, certainly, but also optimising growth, and the size of our businesses.

Patagonia, the Californian outdoor clothing company, is perhaps one of the best known examples of a company, that really seems to be engaging with a mindful approach to consumption - by taking the seemingly counterintuitive approach to encouraging its customers to buy less! And really pushing the re-use, repair and recycling business model - in pursuit of the company's mission of building the best product, causing no unnecessary harm, and using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

And what influenced the approach at Patagonia? Whether formalised or not, Chouinard points to his life-long study of Buddhist philosophies as being a major influence underpinning his work; a mindful approach to consumption.

Out of the crisis?

There is no doubt that the introduction of mindfulness can have major benefits for businesses and employees; through the reduction of stress, and generating the potential for greater wellbeing, creativity, performance, personal growth, and behavioural change. And, not surprisingly, at this time of stress and challenge, the approach is growing in popularity.

But also, mindfulness presents a way out of our seemingly intractable situations - really challenging the more fundamental and difficult aspects of our sustainability challenges, such as our consumption model of economy.

Will mindfulness take off in business? Will the full implications be allowed to take effect? It remains to be seen where this will all end up, but I for one, will be watching and participating with keen interest.

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This is an abridged version of an article originally published on 2-degrees Network, as part of the Sustainable Business Strategy series.

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