Infusing Traditional Business Systems with Spiritual Wisdom

How Mindfulness Improves Organizational Effectiveness

2014 Volume 17 Issue 3

Some of the most competitive companies in America have realized that a focus on traditional corporate leadership strategies alone does not lead to sustained innovation and financial success. In order to remain competitive and grow high-performing teams in this fast-paced business climate, organizations may need to look beyond conventional strategies to expand business profitability and workforce productivity.

Integrating Spiritual Wisdom with Traditional Organizational Strategy

shutterstock_146568392 Man Meditaing smFor organizations like Google, Ford Motor Company, and Green Mountain Coffee, spiritual wisdom like mindfulness coexists in unconventional ways with traditional business models in their corporate cultures resulting in positive outcomes for the organization and its team members. Business leaders can maintain a competitive edge and draw from the wisdom of mindfulness to engage employees. Mindfulness is associated with Eastern contemplative traditions like Buddhism. In the context of the West, mindfulness is a practice that calls on the individual to pay attention in and to the present moment. By training the mind to be alert rather than scattered in various directions, mindfulness is also described as a way of being where an individual makes conscious, compassionate choices that are reflected in external actions.

The movement to integrate spiritual wisdom with traditional organizational strategy is reflected in various ways. For example, in his book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman describes a profound shift in businesses when the focus is not only on making money but follows the triple bottom line model of organizational success. When individuals engage in meaningful work and in a purposeful community, “significant material and spiritual awards” emerge in the organization.[1] Other business leaders such as Arianna Huffington also suggest that success is linked to inner wisdom and mindfulness in addition to traditional metrics like profitability and power.[2] Senior executives even seek professional guidance from spiritual luminaries such as Deepak Chopra and Jack Kornfield suggesting that some organizations operate with an awakened consciousness that moves beyond external concerns like market position and financial results.

According to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, the intersection of business and spirituality is a necessity in the modern workplace: “There must be a spiritual dimension in your life and in your business.”[3] The spiritual dimension of business broadens opportunities for leaders and employees to respond to work in conscious ways. Since mindfulness is known to cultivate compassion for others, awaken the desire to end suffering, and motivate positive change in the world, an opportunity exists to blend traditional corporate goals that focus on financial metrics with an individual’s search for fulfillment. When individuals integrate what is meaningful in their personal and professional lives, it brings positive results to the workplace such as increased morale.[4]

My discussion of how traditional business models and mindfulness work together to build innovative organizations is demonstrated in three parts. First, I examine how mindfulness benefits both the organization and the individual. Second, I give examples of how companies like Google, Ford Motor Company, and Green Mountain Coffee infuse mindfulness into their organizations. Lastly, I discuss tangible benefits of mindfulness and suggest practical examples to incorporate into a workplace setting.

The Value of Mindfulness

While many organizations focus solely on shareholder value, other companies realize that positive financial results come when they invest in the human capital in their workplaces.[5] When employees have sustained pressure to contribute to competitive and profitable organizations, it can result in negative consequences like physical illness and chronic health conditions. Directly impacting business profits, the cost for employees’ poor health in America totals $576 billion a year. The economic consequences also reflect a loss of productivity: “Of that amount [$576 billion], 30 percent, or $227 billion is from “lost productivity” from employee absenteeism due to illness or what researchers called “presenteeism” when employees report to work but illness keeps them from performing at their best.[6] The inclusion of mindfulness in the workplace brings positive outcomes in the face of employee illness and lost productivity. Mindful practices are beneficial to individuals in terms of disease prevention and pain management. With regular practice, mindfulness also helps the body and mind regulate negative emotions and response to stress. In fact, psychological research confirms that “mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it’s also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol” indicating that using mindfulness tools at work can bring effective outcomes to individuals and translate into managerial goals of high job performance, timely project completion, and financial benchmarks.[7]

Work Satisfaction and Internal Rewards

From an employee’s perspective, the measure of satisfaction at work often is not linked to external rewards like pay raises and a key to the corner office. Instead, work satisfaction is associated with intrinsic value and reflects an individual’s search for deeper satisfaction: “While a paycheck is important, even more engaging rewards include human connection, peer recognition, self-expression, a stimulating career path, personal growth, sense of community, and other intrinsic incentives.”[8] Given the orientation toward internal rewards, mindfulness can offer individual fulfillment and even transform the community.

According to Alan Saks’ organizational study on how spirituality influences employee engagement, meaningful work and personal fulfillment feed into an employee’s sense of community: “One of the most important dimensions of workplace spirituality is the sense that one belongs to and is part of a caring and supportive community and connected to others at work.”[9] John Milliman’s study echoes the significance of how workplace nurtures the formation of community. When team members “are open to meaningful and purposeful relationships, which are key aspects of community, [they] are more likely to grow, learn, and achieve at work and less likely to experience job burnout.”[10] However, it turns out that a reported 75 percent of the American workforce is disengaged leading to a loss of $380 billion a year.[11] This punctuates the significance of putting tools in place that help take care of employees in innovative ways. When a team member is engaged in the workplace community, the individual is able to perform more competently rather than from a space of exhaustion and lack of interest. In other words, the individual, the organization, and its shareholders realize significant benefits.

How Some Organizations Infuse Mindfulness into their Cultures:

Organizational researchers Robert Giacalone and Carole Jurkiewicz report that “spirituality-based organizational cultures are the most productive, and that by maximizing productivity they confer organizational dominance in the marketplace.”[12] Leading edge companies recognize spiritual practices can simultaneously help meet organizational goals and better meet the needs of its employees. Some like Ford Motor Company implement spiritual practices through philanthropic and community projects. In an interview with spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield, Executive Chairman Bill Ford acknowledged the importance of compassion in the workplace with a volunteer program he developed to “institutionalize the experience of spirit that was already there in the company.”[13] Employee volunteers at Ford participate in activities such as building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Market leaders such as Google and Green Mountain Coffee enjoy high productivity while at the same time allow individuals to connect with meaning at work through practices like mindfulness and meditation. For example, Google sponsors mindful lunches where diners eat their meal in silence. By offering employees time to rest their minds Google believes it “revives the corporate culture of innovation, community and doing the right thing.”[14] In addition, Google offers mindfulness instruction in a program called “Search Inside Yourself” that teaches employees to “support reflection over reactivity, encourages feeling feelings rather than reacting on them, and opens awareness to what is really going on is of benefit.”[15]

Green Mountain Coffee provides meditation rooms where “workers can begin their shift with five-minute “mindful movement” exercises and offers spiritual retreats to employees and their families.[16] Many Americans use tools like mindfulness without identifying themselves with a particular faith tradition.[17] That mindfulness and meditation offer accessible practices without specific religious associations points to why these practices are viable conventions to integrate into the workplace. Instead of a dogmatic focus, these practices are known to develop concentration, compassion, and wisdom in its followers as well as encourage clear thinking and overall health.[18]

Tangible Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace

Spiritual teacher Peter Russell calls broad spiritual practices such as mindfulness “technologies” that give individuals ways to ameliorate the discomfort of suffering and stress in the external world.[19] Mindfulness also provides measureable benefits for an individual’s wellbeing that include increased physical and mental health, interpersonal relationship quality, and behavioral regulation.[20] When this “technology” is implemented into workplaces, tangible benefits are realized in the organization including stress reduction, a decrease in employee’s absenteeism, enhanced work performance, and an increase in the overall health and wellbeing of employees.[21] Some employees report that practices like mindfulness and meditation correspond to finding meaning and fulfillment in their jobs while some have even become better at doing their job.[22]

Mindfulness: Learning to Focus the Mind

In the context of the West, mindfulness is practiced as a way to pay closer attention to external events as well as to the content of mind.[23] Rather than asking someone to submit to certain beliefs, mindfulness is an individual activity that focuses on events that arise in an individual’s mind from moment to moment. By training the mind to be alert rather than scattered in various directions, mindfulness is also described as a way of being where an individual makes compassionate choices that are reflected in conscious actions. As individuals cultivate present moment awareness and tune into the sensations present in the body and mind, the same keen attention extends to others in the community. This expands mindfulness from an individual activity to one that leads to deeper connections with others by “nourishing others through attention, understanding, and transformation.”[24] This connection is an important component to an employee’s satisfaction and effectiveness at work. By implementing mindfulness tools, individuals start to relate better with other people and workplace culture becomes more collaborative.

Mindfulness is not only available to anyone who is willing to embrace the possibilities of the practice, but can be practiced in various settings and applied to everyday activities.[25] For example, Zen teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Marc Lesser acknowledge that routine tasks in the workplace like answering the phone, turning on the computer, or walking to a meeting are opportunities to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness does not require any special equipment or extra time in one’s schedule to practice and “can be practiced anytime during your workday, whether you are alone, with others, or in the midst of an intense discussion or negotiation.”[26] Although the external world may impinge on the individual in the form of deadlines and meeting financial benchmarks in the workplace, practices like mindfulness train the mind to be relaxed and alert in the face of stress. Practitioners of mindful practices “come with a prolonged focus directed toward organizational goals” as they are trained in one-pointed mental focus and are likely better than non-practitioners to block out external distractions.[27]

Potential Complications of Infusing Mindfulness into the Workplace

Although mainstream reports and empirical studies validate that practices like mindfulness bring many benefits like social connections and deeper meaning to individuals as well as increased productivity and bottom line results to organizations, potential obstacles of introducing these practices into the workplace are for the most part overlooked. Some potential complications include the language that is used or not used to describe mindfulness. Since mindfulness is appropriated from Buddhist spiritual practices, it is important to present the practice in a way that certain religious affiliations are not privileged and everyone’s practices are welcome in the public, secular space of the workplace. For instance, some organizations like Google refer to mindfulness as self-regulation and mental training while the program at General Mills teaches employees about taking a “purposeful pause.”[28]

Another important aspect of introducing mindfulness into the workplace relates to offering individuals choices with regard to participating in the practices. However, there may be costs to the work team or organization if the entire company does not embrace practices like mindfulness. For example, Google reports that 1,000 employees have participated in their Search Inside Yourself mindfulness training.[29] But what about those who have not gone through the training yet, those who may not wish to go through the training at all, or those who have gone through the training but have lost their enthusiasm to engage in a daily practice? It is unclear from this research how organizations manage to balance optional practices with bottom line results. If part of the desired outcome in organizations is a sense of interconnectedness within the work community, it seems as though a certain number of employees in the organization would need to participate in the practices on some level for the organization to fully realize the benefits.

How to Introduce Mindfulness into Your Organization

To successfully cultivate a mindful environment that supports employee and organizational effectiveness, consider the suggestions below in the planning process:

  1. Embrace a Gradual Approach: Some meditation experts suggest approaches that “start easy and progress gradually.”[30] Rather than adding more tasks to a team or individual’s already overloaded schedule, look for the “small pockets of time during the day” like time in between meetings to practice mindfulness.[31]
  2. Blend Traditional Models with Spiritual Wisdom: Since traditional business systems tend to contrast with spiritual practices, consider how the two worlds will merge in your culture.

Table 1 Ritter

  1. Recognize a Variety of Practices: Depending on the existing organizational culture and goals of the leadership, there are a number of different mindfulness tools to infuse into the workplace. Practices might include breath work, yoga, meditation, prayer, gratitude, spending time in nature, or serving the community.
  2. Participation of Leadership: Encourage participation at all levels of the organization. Executives practice yoga and meditation in companies like General Mills highlighting the importance of the practices to the culture and organization.
  3. Consistency of Practice: Offer daily and weekly offerings of mindfulness practices to help employees set a regular routine. Consider a blend of practices that can be experienced individually in addition to group practices led by a professional guide.

Three “Mindful Breaks” to Inspire Your Organization:

While there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in the workplace, the three “mindful breaks” listed below are examples of how individuals can use various tools to check-in with the quality of their wellbeing on a regular basis and sustain a high level of productivity at work. In between meeting deadlines, managing relationships with others, and navigating organizational change, “mindful breaks” provide space for employees to slow down and reset a clear mental focus. In so doing, individuals can respond consciously to their work tasks, customers, and co-workers.

Table 2 Ritter

Conclusion

Organizational studies show that employees value meaningful work, personal fulfillment, and social connections in the workplace. At the same time, organizational health is tied to a seemingly conflicting set of standards such as productivity and profitability. Many innovative companies utilize what were once considered unconventional spiritual practices like mindfulness in the workplace as opportunities to address the needs of employees and the effectiveness of the organization at-large. Market-leading companies such as Google, General Mills, and Ford Motor Company recognize the importance of connecting the well-being of employees with traditional business strategies and needs of the organization. As these and other innovators begin to open their employee development to include training in mindfulness, meditation, and other spiritual wisdom, the advantages of bringing ancient wisdom to the modern workplace will undoubtedly reflect positively on the bottom line.

 

[1] Fred Kofman, Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2006).

[2] Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder, (New York: Harmony, 2014).

[3] Jo Confino, “Google Seeks Out Wisdom of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh,” The Guardian (2013). Retrieved on August 12, 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/global-technology-ceos-wisdom-zen-master-thich-nhat-hanh.

[4] Sukumarakurup Krishnakumar, and Christopher P. Neck, “The ‘What,’ ‘Why,’ and ‘How’ of Spirituality in the Workplace,” Journal of Managerial Psychology, 17, no.3 (2002), 153-164.

[5] Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Business and the Spirit: Management Practices That Sustain Lives,” in Handbook of Spirituality and Organizational Performance, ed. Robert Giacoone. and Carol L. Jurkiewicz (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 33.

[6] Bruce Japsen, “Workforce Illness Costs $576B Annually from Sick Days to Workers Compensation,” Forbes.com (2012). Retrieved on September 1, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/brucejapsen/2012/09/12/u-s-workforce-illness-costs-576b-annually-from-sick-days-to-workers-compensation/.

[7] Amanda L. Chan, “Mindfulness Meditation Benefits: 20 Reasons Why It’s Good For Your Mental and Physical Health,” Huffington Post (2013). Retrieved on July 30, 2014 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html.

[8] Larry Myler, “Why Are 70% of Employees Disengaged, And What Can You Do About It?” Forbes.com (2013). Retrieved on September 2, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymyler/2013/09/02/why-are-70-of-employees-disengaged-and-what-can-you-do-about-it/.

[9] Alan M. Saks, “Workplace spirituality and employee engagement.” Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, 8, no. 4 (2011): 317-340.

[10] John Milliman, Czaplewski, A. J., and Ferguson, J., “Workplace spirituality and employee work attitudes: An exploratory empirical assessment.” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 16, no. 4 (2003): 426-447.

[11] Jenna Goudreau, “Deepak Chopra on Enlightened Leadership,” Forbes.com (2014). Retrieved on September 2, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2011/01/12/deepak-chopra-on-enlightened-leadership-happiness-meaning-work-employee-engagement-president-barack-obama/.

[12]Robert Giacalone and Carol L. Jurkiewicz, “Toward a Science of Workplace Spirituality,” Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance, ed. Robert Giacoone.and Carol L. Jurkiewicz. (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 9.

[13] Bill Ford and Jack Kornfield, ”Using Wisdom Purposefully in Business” (presentation, Wisdom 2.0 Conference, San Francisco, CA, February 24, 2013).

[14] Jeff Gordinier, “On Google’s Lunch Menu: Mindful Eating,” NYTimes.com (2012). Retrieved on August 7, 2014 from http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/on-googles-lunch-menu-mindful-eating/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.

[15] Todd Essig, “Google Teaches Employees to ‘Search Inside Yourself,’” Forbes.com (2012).
Retrieved on August 30, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2012/04/30/google-teaches-employees-to-search-inside-yourself/.

[16] David Gelles,  “All in A Day’s Work,” Yoga Journal  (2013). Retrieved on September, 1, 2014 from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/lifestyle/all-in-a-day-s-work/.

[17] Peter N. Gregory, “Describing the Elephant: Buddhism in America.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 11 (2001): 233-263.

[18]Pawinee Petchsawang and Dennis Duchon, “Workplace Spirituality, Meditation, and Work Performance,” Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, 9, no. 2 (2012), 189-208.

[19] Peter Russell, “Exploring the Deep Mind,” in Measuring the Immeasurable: The Scientific Case for Spirituality, ed. Tami Simon (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008), 12.

[20] Erik Dane, “Paying Attention to Mindfulness and Its Effects on Task Performance in the Workplace.” Journal of Management, 37, no. 4 (2011): 997-1018.

[21] Research scholars such as Pawinee Petchsawanga, Dennis Duchon, Karl Weick and Ted Putnam have documented benefits when mindfulness is introduced into workplaces.

[22] Chade-Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), (New York: Harper One, 2012).

[23] Karl E. Weick, and Ted Putnam, “Organizing for Mindfulness: Eastern Wisdom and Western Knowledge.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 15, no. 3 (2007): 275-287.

[24] Marc Lesser, Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration-How Zen Practice can Transform Your Work And Your Life, (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2005).

[25] Dane, (2011).

[26] Lesser, (2005).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Chade-Meng Tan’s “Search Inside Yourself” program at Google offers various ways to consider mindfulness as creating new mental habits. Former General Mills corporate officer Janice Marturano also explains mindfulness in neutral language in her leadership book, Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership.

[29] David Gelles, “The mind business,” Financial Times (2012). Retrieved on September, 2, 2014 from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/d9cb7940-ebea-11e1-985a-00144feab49a.html

[30] Mark Thornton, Meditation in a New York Minute: Super Calm for the Super Busy, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2006).

[31] Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement and Peace, (New York: Workman, 2013).

 

About the Author(s)

RuthAnn Ritter, is a consultant and educator currently pursuing doctoral work in Organizational Management and Leadership. She holds master's degrees in Theology from Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado and in Education from University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests focus on how spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation are appropriated from Eastern contemplative traditions and used in secular settings in the West like the workplace. The workshops and trainings she delivers to businesses focus on practical ways to marry spiritual wisdom with organizational leadership and performance management.

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