Is Real Mindfulness Possible in Today’s Business Culture?

I’m a believer.
Living more mindfully has changed my perspective on life.  I practice (and practice) and I support others, whenever possible, to find the ways that work for them to be more mindful.
My motivation, of course, is deeply personal – as everyone’s should be.
But I have another “agenda.” When I look around at the state of the world, the statistics on depression, violence and on a less dramatic note – workplace engagement – I conclude that something’s got to give.  More mindful cultures, in general, are surely desirable, right?
But when I think of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition, “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” I have to wonder what the corporate world expects from a more mindful work force?
While a steady stream of articles continue to point out the many benefits of mindfulness, the release of David Gelles, new book, Mindful Work, has created a real uptick in interest from the corporate world.  This should be welcome news to professionals like me who hope to find more receptive audiences for developing greater mindful awareness as a foundation for deeper levels of change.
But I also worry that the overselling and oversimplication of mindfulness will create unrealistic expectations – for the practitioner and the “investor” (namely the business buying the services for their employees).
There’s a growing chorus of concerned observers of this current phenomenon (naysayers aside) like author Joe Keohane who questions corporate intent in his New Republic essay, In Praise of Meaningless Work, “Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime and good hours.  It’s easy to see how meditation could serve a similarly ideological purpose as an enabler of workaholic culture, rather than a counterweight to it – making a bad situation just a little more bearable, and therefore, in the long run, perpetuating.”
While Keohane’s conclusions might seem cynical, employee disengagement is a serious problem across industries with few solutions in sight. Studies show that employees suffering from high stress levels have lower engagement, are less productive and have higher absenteeism levels than those not working under excessive pressure.
The bottom line is that escalating levels of dis-engagement erode productivity.  Some corporate leaders, sensing the decline of workplace “buy-in,” might be eager to bolster the skill-sets and spirits of employers with the promise of more mindful cultures.
As Keohane points out, “More output at next to no cost. And thus did the word ring out: Ours will no longer be a future of rote compliance with company objectives, pursued ceaselessly in a deadening, musty cubicle farm. Ours will be jobs bursting with meaning.  Meaning and productivity. But especially productivity.”
While employers may be right to assume that a more mindful workforce will be more focused and less stressed, it will take comprehensive and sustained organizational efforts that go way beyond practicing mindfulness to humanize the workplace.   Mindfulness is no substitute for “normal” work hours, fair compensation and cultures that foster transparency and respect.

Environment is Stronger than Will Power

As mindfulness, which emanates from ethical and religious roots, continues to be mainstreamed into more sellable packages, important questions are raised about exactly what is being practiced.  Is mindfulness simply a stress-reduction technique?  Is meditation just a short reprieve from the grind of daily work life?  Is the essence of mindfulness practice just another strategy to become more productive and efficient?  While there’s nothing wrong with any of these motivations, committing to a more mindful life is the only way that deep and sustainable change is possible.
In Mindful Work – Am to PM, I wrote that mindfulness “practice” begins the moment we open our eyes in the morning reminding ourselves that we can live this day more consciously – with more intentional purpose than yesterday. The beauty of mindfulness is that NOW is always the start of the practice. The practice is the challenge of remembering to bring ourselves back to the present moment – as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, non-judgmentally.
This is the great challenge of living more mindfully.  While even 5 minutes of sitting practice will help build the muscle of mindfulness, it’s responding differently to the onslaught of daily potential stressors that enriches the practice. As the great Hindu teacher, Paramahansa Yogananda reminded us, “Environment is stronger than will power. “
We have huge expectations of quick-fixes in this culture. Often we don’t believe change is possible because we can’t hang in there to do the hard work it takes over time. One of the great benefits of maintaining a mindfulness practice is the development of greater discipline.  And while the word can evoke punitive connotations, it’s from this disciplined practice of grounding that more calmness and focus arises.
Understanding the motivation for a mindfulness practice is fundamental to its establishment. What we want from the experience should be the salient question.  Committing to a mindfulness practice isn’t the same as taking on an exercise routine. Though increasingly couched as “mental fitness” comparable to physical fitness, the practice of mindfulness is a very different level of experience.
Mindfulness is an intimate experience. When we commit to going deeper, we allow ourselves to open to thoughts and feelings that have often been distracted, diverted and even repressed.  The essence of mindfulness is a delicate balance of letting go of cognitive control, on one hand, while consciously strengthening it on the other.  The “choice” to not become attached to the multiple thoughts and feelings that arise during mindfulness meditation takes time, care and ultimately self-compassion.
Gently observing the mind’s wanderings and habits without interpretation or “taking action” isn’t easy. It’s the natural tendency of the mind to want to problem-solve. In many ways, when we “submit” to allowing pure mindfulness, we’re relinquishing patterns of control we’ve mentally and emotionally enforced for many years.
Often the submission or allowance to the mind’s unpredictability meets the resistance of the part of the mind that vies for the control that is always illusive.  When we get into the weeds of mindfulness practice, we find that growing our sense of emotional awareness is critical. Not for the purposes of analysis, rather to better observe what feelings drive us when we’re not actively practicing.
The critical element of learning to observe – non-judgmentally – relieves the mind of its constant vigilance to defend itself against its perceived threats.
Once we accept this premise as critical to the process, programs imposed through employers – which inevitably carry expectations for specific results – can change the very nature of the process.  Of course this also depends on how programs are presented and how they are taught. If I work in a very high stress environment, like a critical care unit in a hospital or air traffic control, simply learning how to control stress through better breathing techniques is a laudable employee benefit.


Many observers of the trajectory of modern forms of mindfulness raise important questions about its mainstreaming, especially within business environments.
In their article Beyond Mindfulness, Ron Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and David Loy, a Zen teacher point out that “Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions.”
Loy and Purser’s concern should be at the heart of why any senior leader or organization makes the choice to introduce mindfulness programs into their culture. And it’s a question that every trainer should be asking organizations as part of their assessment process as well.  They believe that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.”
While I don’t share the same level of skepticism as Loy, Purser and other critics, I do believe that promoting mindfulness within organizational settings should be accompanied by a much more thorough analysis of assumptions and expectations as to cultural context – and anticipated outcomes.
As neuroscience continues to show the links between well-being and mindfulness and compassion practices, companies will adopt more “techniques” to serve their purposes.
Corporate leaders like Kelly Palmer, head of “talent transformation and inclusion” at LinkedIn gave a talk entitled “Fostering empathetic connection: lessons from compassion efforts at LinkedIn” which included the information that “sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is to let an employee go.”  Palmer believes that there is a convergence of work and personal life. People are never really off, so we have to address the whole person. And if we can help people, it helps employee retention. Anything that helps people personally has benefits that apply to the whole company.”
Palmer’s rationale is influenced by a belief that incoming Milennials expect more than high-tech offices and nice lunches – they want meaning.
I hope they will also want a personal life.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Simon says:

    Hi Louise, this is both a really interesting and important article to add to the global discussion on mindfulness. I feel that this point you make about ” overselling and oversimplication of mindfulness” is central.
    Maria and I frame our discussions of mindfulness with corporations in terms of understanding the impact on thinking and reasoning skills, understanding the impact of ego on blocking the ability to the effect and impact of one’s own behaviour and words on others (as well as failing to monitor what you yourself are actually saying), the introduction, need and benefits of human values, and the need to elevate and expand the level of consciousness in employees and all collaborators in an organisation.
    These are real conversations we are having with the most senior directors, not all organisations, but many national and global organisations who are now rethinking their corporate educational strategies, and also how they need to move beyond a focus on purpose to a deep focus on human values.

    • Hi Simon
      Great to hear from you – and pleased you liked the piece. I hesitated joining the chorus with all that is being written about mindfulness – but with being both a long time practitioner – and helping to support others in the process through my work as a consultant, I felt compelled to add my bit.
      You’ve captured the essence of what I refer to as context “Maria and I frame our discussions of mindfulness with corporations in terms of understanding the impact on thinking and reasoning skills,” this I believe is essential and perhaps missing in too many corporate training rooms that even well-intended, are not providing a framework.
      Glad to be part of the conversation – and appreciate your experienced perspective,

  2. Louise~
    As always, your post is beautiful enough and grieving enough to make me cry. The dark facts of a corporate reality — that everything can be turned into an opportunity for profits and productivity stand out. While that’s certainly not the whole story, it is an important part of it — perhaps a signal part because it leaks the underlying negative values that keep the status quo, well, the status quo. It seems everything, any effort, even mindfulness can be distorted.
    I can tell you that where I’ve moved over the course of my twenty-five years as a consultant is toward no programs at all. No quality programs, no engagement programs, no mindfulness programs — none of that — for precisely the caveats you’ve mentioned: they get hijacked and all efforts to return them to their fundamental intention end up fundamentally defensive.
    This is in no way a cynical reply. It’s more about what I believe is the true nature of our work. I hold my ideals very, very dear, and those are all about humanizing organizations. But today, it is more about what you call it, and how it works, about six point programs and short books. If you call it anything at all, it is subject to the dysfunctions of the system into which you are trying to sell it. If you explain how it works, and these days brain chemistry is the mechanism, that too is quickly and very easily hijacked.
    I believe we must look quite a bit deeper — deeper than we’ve ever gone, which is not to culture but to the source of culture, where we enter a realm and a field we don’t really understand, where conscious, rational intervention is inevitably an inadequate recipe. There we have a chance if we can respond with heart to the all the bogus requests for “how to.”
    Here’s what I mean by that. If I absorb your words as a rational “argument” for change, I look for a opportunity to question and to create a debate, perhaps in this case about the value of “mindfulness.” But if I hear your soulfulness, your pain and truth as a person, your living truth, I don’t argue, I listen. There isn’t, in fact, any real program there at all, at least not one that goes by a certain name, that has a certain dogma. If I respond it’s because of the soulfulness in you that attracts me. In fact, you and I may face utter futility in such a provocative stance, affirming the reality that perhaps we cannot change anything at all, nothing. But we do it anyway. That’s the difference.
    And out of that raw, shapeless, difficult reality, that awesome wall and resistance, standing there, we so find a baseline hope. It’s about as challenging as stopping people from joining ISIS. Because, after all, ISIS is just one more burgeoning conservative corporation, physically expressed, a Ted Cruzish, Rand Paulish belief in moral control, that totally defeats the heart of what it means to be alive in favor of some theory of God and authority, a hope — and truth — that require an entirely different mode of being and rejection of violence.
    I am not telling you what my program is. I won’t. I refuse. Rather, I am the subversion called “what is human.” I’m not going to play games here. I’m not going to try to save the world through some philosophy or belief system that can be argued, appraised, distorted, discounted, bypassed, transcended. To all that, I say, out, go away. To the contrary, I’m simply going to stand here, with as much clarity and compassion as I can muster, keeping myself in tact and hopefully serving as a beacon for what’s better than what we have today.
    Let that kind of presence in its soft, vulnerable, firm and forceful ways, change things, as they are able to humanly change. That’s all I know about the way.

    • Dear Dan,
      How can I possibly do your deep and soulful response justice?
      I can say, however, how grateful I am for it. Not for the “comment” (well thx for that) but for how you hold the space (so to speak) of truth. I once studied Buddhism (what a great experience) with the renowned American Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, who was a very popular Columbia University professor who “held court” with rooms full of hungry learners. He, a great friend of the Dalai Lama, and champion of Tibet, made a case for supporting the many hundreds of monks in monasteries all over the world – who as he said – hold the space of pure thought and intention for the world every day. Not comparing you to the monks (yet) but it’s what came to mind when I read your thoughts here.
      I wrote of my “concerns” about how mindfulness may be co-opted (and it will) by those whose intent is to have their overburdened, exhausted and often dispirited employees, “let off steam.” But I also believe, partly due to my long time personal experience as a practitioner, that there is a deep well that many people will find there – perhaps not to the end result (more focus, attention and voila – productivity for the organization) but in what they “see” when they are there. And some will. Change lies there. Soulfulness lies there. Sweetness lies there. A softening that allows me to look at the world with much more compassion than I did before. I trust this will happen – because I am not unique – and it has for me.
      You’re a gem,

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