office meditation
Self-awareness can be vital. Photo by Yasuhide Fumoto--Getty Images

Is ‘mindfulness’ just another management fad?

Sep 26, 2014

Dear Annie: What do you think about this idea called “mindfulness”? My team at work has a new boss who is always mentioning it, as in “Let’s try to be mindful about this” or “I want us to approach that as mindfully as we can.” Not wanting to admit I had no idea what he meant, I looked it up on Wikipedia and it’s evidently the practice of focusing on the present and comes from an ancient Buddhist meditation technique. Okay, but can you explain how it applies to, for example, marketing new financial instruments (which is what we do)? And do you and your readers think there is something to it, or is it just another management fad? — Skeptical Banker

Dear S.B.: Like so many workplace trends, this one swept Silicon Valley a few years ago and has since drifted eastward. There’s nothing new about Left Coast thinkers seeking enlightenment through Buddhist practices—Steve Jobs spent a lot of time with gurus in India, and he was married by a Zen priest. What is different about this, though, is that “mindfulness,” which is based on ancient Buddhist beliefs and backed up by cutting-edge neuroscience, has been adopted by so many big organizations.

Consider: Google not only offers mindfulness training in-house, but in 2012 it started a school called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute to spread the technique to anyone who’s interested in it. Companies as different from each other as Apple, McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Ford, and Genentech are also teaching mindfulness, including meditation, to employees. Now, the concept is spreading to the business schools. Starting this month, undergraduate business students and MBA candidates at New York University and its Stern School of Business will take mindfulness courses.

So what is mindfulness, exactly? Stephen McKenzie, a research psychologist who wrote a book called Mindfulness at Work: How to Avoid Stress, Achieve More, and Enjoy Life, sums it up as “focusing our attention on what is, rather than being distracted by what isn’t.” He points to reams of recent scientific evidence that meditation, and mental habits related to it, can rewire how the brain responds to stress, boost people’s creativity, and lead to more rational decision-making.

Moreover, it isn’t a matter of changing the way we think or “something we need to be sold on,” McKenzie notes. “Mindfulness is something we all have already, at least occasionally.” The goal of all the training that’s going on now is to develop more of it and hone the ability to tap into it under pressure. With that in mind, McKenzie suggests these four mindfulness techniques you can use at the office:

Concentrate completely on one thing at a time. McKenzie calls this being “fully connected to the reality of the moment”—that is, not multitasking, and hushing those nagging, negative little voices in your head that tell you what can't be done. A total focus on the task at hand “eliminates unhelpful distractions, such as our ideas about a how a problem ‘should’ be solved,” he says. Letting go of self-imposed constraints, like how things have been done in the past, “makes people naturally open to new and creative solutions.”

Pause between projects. Getting mentally stuck on one problem interferes with humans’ natural ability to see different situations with fresh eyes. So mindfulness requires detaching mentally from one activity before starting to focus on another one. Standing up and walking around, or just deep breathing for a minute, can help.

Stop worrying. People often believe they are thinking about a problem when they are, in fact, just spinning their wheels. “We think that thinking about a problem again and again and again will solve it,” says McKenzie. “It won’t.” Mindfulness training aims to teach people how to get out of their own way and let what McKenzie calls “our natural flow of creative consciousness” come up with a fresh approach.

Respond, rather than react. “Rigidity is the opposite of creativity. We become rigid when we think we know what to do,” McKenzie says, especially when it isn’t working. Mindfulness, by contrast, is about “letting go of the belief that we know the best and only way to work something out.” Seeing a situation clearly, and questioning or putting aside assumptions about it, can open up new neural pathways that lead to novel ideas.

Fans of mindfulness say practicing it makes people more productive, less stressed, and more likely to reach decisions that are based on reality rather than, for instance, on wishful thinking or fear. Maybe so. The only real way to know whether it’s just a fad is to wait and see whether the current wave of enthusiasm for it lasts. McKenzie, whose view is admittedly biased, thinks that a fad that is already thousands of years old will stick around for quite a while longer “because it works.”

In any case, your current boss seems to agree, which is reason enough to keep an open mind. And if mindfulness really does produce more creativity with less angst, let’s hope it’s here to stay.

Talkback: Does your employer encourage the practice of “mindfulness”? If you've been trained in it, has it helped you in your job? Leave a comment below.

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