Meditation in business: the criticisms are the same as those aimed at CSR 20 years ago

Mindfulness meditation, which has its origins in many multiple spiritual traditionshas entered companies in recent years, and could provide some answers to a society that would have been carried away in a frantic managerial race where continuous growth and time pressures have become major challenges of modern life.

Recently we conducted a study where we were able to explore both the benefits and the pitfalls of integrating this practice into companies (which we have named “corporate mindfulness”).

First, several types of benefits, physiological and psychological, have been identified. For example, mindfulness-based interventions in companies have been shown to reduce perceived stress and anxiety linked to the character traits of the employees. Mindfulness meditation allows employees to better regulate their emotionsto improve their decision-making abilityand finally to allow a better resistance to change.

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These individual mechanisms strengthen leadership in organizations and mindfulness of teamskey ingredients for fostering a learning, more resilient company with a greater ability to adapt in a changing world.

“Business as usual”?

Our study is also interested in the critical current of corporate mindfulness for which mindfulness meditation in business is a neoliberal approach which would come on the contrary reinforce the problems caused by capitalism. As we note, these criticisms echo older debates on corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Twenty years ago, the debate focused on the following question: was CSR a simple more tool to make the company more efficient ? Or, on the contrary, could it be considered as a ethical object and with a transformational vocation for the company and society?

The same debate rages today about corporate mindfulness. For many, it is a human resources (HR) instrument that allows employees to be more agile, fairer in their decisionsmore skilled in their interpersonal relationships, more motivated by their business and therefore more successful.

Corporate mindfulness, a simple human resources tool?

This way of understanding corporate mindfulness seems to support a “business as usual” paradigm, that is to say a paradigm where economic performance dominates all other values. Corporate mindfulness would even have been qualified recently as a way of creating a sustainable competitive advantage for the company.

The critical posture, on the contrary, sees corporate mindfulness as a practice impoverished and decontextualized from its Buddhist roots, a simple technique reproducing managerial inequalities and helping to maintain toxic organizational cultures.

These criticisms call for a more ethical vision and for some this implies rediscovering a closeness to religious roots, so that a real in-depth transformation of the modes of relations between managers and their employees, between humans and their relationship to nature, can operate. This new, more ethical and non-instrumental approach would make it possible to promote a fairer and less environmentally destructive world.

Going beyond the ethical/instrumental debate

In the field of CSR, the debate has never been completely settled between those for whom social and environmental innovation practices must be done for ethical reasons (“the right thing to do”) and those for whom it is impossible to separate ethics from economic purpose. In 1995, the American researcher Thomas D. Jones explained for example that morality is not an end in itself, but a way to maximize profitability of the firm and its efficiency.

For an ethicist, this kind of reasoning surely seems incoherent. The pragmatic current can be a solution to the debate. Thus, instead of examining the deep motivations of the actors to understand whether the motivations are ethical or instrumental, the invitation is simply to observe the CSR programs implemented by companies in order to establish whether their impacts on designated beneficiaries respond effectively to problems social and environmental.

Thus, by applying a pragmatic approach to corporate mindfulness, we could simply ask ourselves whether companies that integrate mindfulness meditation programs for their employees are also companies whose organizational culture is more honest, more agile and learning.

It would also be a way to assess whether stakeholders (employees, subcontractors, consumers, etc.) are happier, more peaceful, more balanced, and whether environmental and societal issues are truly integrated within the value chain of the company.

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Critics targeting the rise of meditation in business deplore a practice that has been impoverished and decontextualized from its Buddhist roots.

A pragmatic approach could thus make it possible to go beyond the ethical/instrumental debate. It seems indeed that it seems complicated to be able to decipher the deep intentions of managers and it is not necessarily necessary to reconnect with the Buddhist roots of mindfulness for it to be ethical.

Several tracks seem here possible. First, companies can frame mindfulness in a humanistic framework that is not not necessarily spiritual or related to Buddhism. Second, companies can replace an instrumental and authoritarian way of relating to the world with a listening and relational approach.

Third, companies can implement mindfulness in a setting where employees are encouraged to cultivate authenticity, honesty, and risk-taking in ways that foster a collective, not individualistic, approach to environmental and social topics.

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Corporate mindfulness offers multiple benefits for companies, employees and potentially for society more broadly, but it remains important to hear the critical voices that are raised against too much instrumentalization of corporate mindfulness.

However, the risk of this criticism is to deny the possibility that a normative and non-instrumental innovation can enter the company. 20 years ago, we were talking about CSR, today B-Corps have appeared as well as companies with a mission. The B-Corp movement aims to combine both ethics and economics at the heart of the company’s mission and to demonstrate that it is possible to manage sometimes complicated and hybrid balances.

Admittedly, this path is not easy but it remains the most interesting path to pursue. In the same way, a pragmatic approach to corporate mindfulness has the merit of allowing us to be constructive in favoring rather than hindering the experimentation of hybrid practices within companies, thus facilitating the profound and necessary changes in our society in the face of ongoing social and environmental changes.

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Meditation in business: the criticisms are the same as those aimed at CSR 20 years ago

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