Mindfulness & Business Education

With escalating stress and tension created by the fast pace in a rapidly changing world, mindfulness has emerged as a practice to bring truly inner peace and joy to people. It has gained considerable attention from and practiced by a large community, business leaders and has become popular in Western cultures like the US, Europe, Australia. Many speeches, researches have been made on this topic. Big corporationlike Google, IBM, World Bank took first steps of bringing mindfulness practice into their organizations. It raises a question that whether business students should be familiar with and make sense of mindfulness and its practice before getting into the market place full of tension.

Mindfulness in the business context has been taught at my school – IÉSEG School of Management as an one-week elective which gave me a chance to get approach to the topic of mindfulness in management from different view-points and researches while practicing meditation and hatha yoga every day. This was totally a new wind to business classes. And in this article, I would like to discuss about the necessity of incorporating mindfulness into curriculum and operation of business schools.

Current situation of employees and leaders

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Photo source: Internet

In the increasingly competitive and pressing market along with accelerating technology and culture, people are put in the mode of ‘doing’ all the time. Consequently, employees are working harder while paying less attention to what they do, leading to the trade-off of ability to lead, innovate and live meaningful lives (Bruch & Menges, 2010). In order to accelerate the pace of work, employees are doing and are being required to multitask. Notwithstanding, that human being can multitask has been scientifically proved to be impossible because our brain is designed to focus only on doing one work at a time. The multitasking performance, as a result, slows us down and reduces our work quality with the exact consequence pointed out by American Psychological Association (2006) that it leads to 40% decrease in productivity and doubles the possibility of making mistakes.

In such environment, not only employees are affected, but managers and leaders are also influenced by acceleration trap. Leaders nowadays are too busy to either empathize with their direct staff or stay focus, reflect and make plan (Ehrlich, 2015). With mindless leaders nurturing the acceleration culture, the entire organization embraces that practice, creating a vicious circle of doing many things at the same time, losing engagement from employees and failing to meet set goals.

Current management/ business education programs

A raised question is that how employees and managers have been prepared when they are still students at business schools to cope with rapidly changing marketplace and let those issues escalated. Various literatures have looked into different aspects of business school curriculum to provide explanation.

Business education has been claimed by many scholars to emphasize too much on the training of rationality and logical analysis, while ignore other important mental faculties such as intuition, emotions, and personal reflections (Yang & Goralski, 2016). Yang and her colleague also pointed out that the ‘doing’ mentality has been overpowering in business education while the ‘being’ mode of existence, which emphasizes contemplation and reflection in the ‘here and now,’ has been under-researched. As a consequence, business students have been offered very few chances to develop their contemplative mindset and soft skills, which can be roughly translated into intrapersonal and interpersonal emotional, social, and communicative skills” (Yang & Goralski, 2016, p. 16). Furthermore, business schools are criticized for “too narrowly and analytically orienting future managers who will need to lead in a complex, socially and ecologically fraught world, where simple answers just don’t work” (Waddock & Lozano, 2013).

That is to say business students have little opportunity to delve deeply into their inner experiences to incorporate them into consequential insights and thorough thoughts about themselves and others so as to better their capabilities of truly understanding, dealing with their own emotions and others’ and making decision.

Calls for integrating mindfulness into management education

On one hand, mindfulness has become a more and more attractive topic discussed and shared by a lot of business leaders and excutives as a way to drive sustainability and happiness in a corporate from the bottom line. Khajak Keledjian, CEO of Intermix shared his secrets to inner peace; editor of Huffington Post – Arianna Huffington also discussed mindfulness in Thrive; or Jim Jong Kim – president of World Bank and Google leaders invited  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master to come and share about mindfulness to their staff (Confino, 2014). Additionally, mindfulness is being taught by more than a dozen Fortune 500 corporates to their employees and by the U.S. Army (Ehrlich, 2015). Those examples are just to name a few of critical attention to mindfulness application in business context.

If he [business leader] spends all the time taking care of the corporation, he does not have time for himself or his family, but it is important to recognize that the business will profit if he is more calm, more loving, more compassionate and understanding” (Thich Nhat Hanh).

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his retreat run for Google’s top executives at its office in California, pointed out the need for managers and leaders to well take care of themselves in order to drive their organization well.  He said “If  he [business leader] spends all the time taking care of the corporation, he does not have time for himself or his family, but it is important to recognize that the business will profit if he is more calm, more loving, more compassionate and understanding” (Thich Nhat Hanh).

On the other hand, in the business and management academic world, with increasing attention to mindfulness practice in the real marketplace as well as with previously-pointed-out missing in management education, quite a few scholars and educators have called for broadened training to improve self-awareness, to obtain self insight and to develop emotional intelligence which would result in making more ethical and thoughtful decision among business students who are business workers, managers and leaders to be. Yang & Goralski (2016) pointed out the need in promoting self-awareness, focus, and mindfulness in future business leaders for effective leadership by teaching them to be fully aware of the thing happening in a moment because “paying attention to the present moment enables us to observe how our preconceptions and biases from our past experiences affect the way we make decisions in the present” (p.16).

Lampe & Engleman (2012) proposed the mindfulness-based approach to educating business ethics in which teachers would teach mindfulness meditation and open inquiry skills to their students, through which students can gain an understanding of their inner mind’s working to reflect and look for a way to deal with the unethical practices. Interestingly, La Forge (1997) introduces business ethics education via meditation with the purpose of producing people with an “Ethical Vision”. He believed that “meditation gives students an awareness of ethical issues in their lives and leads to the discovery and application of models of ethical conduct to serve as guides to behavior in general and to ethical decision-making in particular”(La Forge, 1997, p. 73).

What mindfulness is and why mindfulness for business education?

With the explained emerge of mindfulness notion in business world and in management education in the previous part, what comes to our minds at this stage  is what mindfulness actually is. There are many definitions to this concept from the Eastern Buddism to Western scholars. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh described mindfulness as living in“the here and the now”, fully present with what we are doing (Hanh, 2002).

Mindfulness is living in the here and the now, fully present with what we are doing.” (Thich Nhat Hanh).

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Director of Stress Reduction Center in Worcester defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Those definitions are to name a few. Overall, common points of all definitions to mindfulness are about awareness of and concentration on the present. Mindfulness can be practiced in daily activities like breathing, eating, walking, communicating with others etc. with full attention to whatever we are doing. Meditation is another way of practicing mindfulness, which has two fundamental qualities to cultivate, namely calming concentration and insight seeing (Khisty, 2010).

To answer the question ‘Why mindfulness for business management education’, we need to look at benefits of it to practitioners. Benefits of mindfulness practice have been discussed a lot and proved by many scientific researches. By enabling us to focus wholeheartedly on and be present with the things we are doing or experiencing, mindfulness improves the quality of our performance (Khisty, 2010) and helps us learn to calm reactive responses and to mindfully choose a new and novel response (Lampe & Engleman, 2012). Neuroscience has also been involved to investigate how meditation changes the brain leading to transformation in attitude and behaviors. Congleton, Hölzel, & Lazar, (2015) reported evidence showing mindfulness literally changes the different areas of the brain. Meditators are proved to have better self-regulation and ability of learning from the past experience to assist their optimal decision making. Moreover, neuroscientists have also proved that “practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self” (Congleton, Hölzel, & Lazar, 2015, p. 4). Not only recognized by researches, significant benefits of mindfulness are also confirmed by companies. Those comprise of improved focus, decision making, creativity and learning; “increased communication, collaboration and productivity; enriched emotional intelligence, well-being, and client relationships; higher job satisfaction and engagement” (Ehrlich, 2015, p. 23).

Business education programs already incorporating mindfulness and results

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2025 Vision of IÉSEG: ‘Believing in mindfulness & creativity to empower change makers

The increasing consideration of mindfulness as critical to business success, as discussed in previous parts, has actually impacted business educators, resulting in the fact that few MBA programs and business schools started combining mindfulness in their curriculum. That could be a single module to develop business students’ leadership, business ethics, social responsibility or a year-long program with courses and events to plan the mindfulness seeds in the future business leaders. As a vivid example, a program named Mindfulness in Business Initiative (MiB) were launched at New York University with the objective of planting the mindfulness seed early in MBA students’ lives, equipping them with tools to positively impact others while taking a more fulfilling and balanced approach to their work” (Kim & Shy, 2015, p. 2). The first year of this program was participated by hundreds of MBA students and at least 15 faculty and staff members. It was structured with courses, lectures, events and symposiums to take students out of their analytical minds and delve into their felt experiences. Mindfulness practices included breath meditation, purposeful pauses, body sensation meditation, open awareness meditation, and mindful communication. Evaluating the program, students expressed high favorability explained by the fact that they became more self-aware, more focused, and had better recognition and understanding of their own thoughts and emotions.

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Cushion set up in Mindfulness class at IÉSEG for meditation

Similarly, levels of mindfulness among MBA students were reported to be significantly raised as a result of a mindfulness-based leadership course in a part-time MBA program at Western University in the United States by Kuecher & Stedham (2018). This course was taught to a class of 34 working students between the age of 24 and 42 years and took place in six Saturdays throughout the fall semester and lasted for 8 hours each. In terms of content, the course was structured in three modules comprising of: scientific evidence of mindfulness benefits; leadership theory and research; and relationship between mindfulness and leadership effectiveness. More importantly, a 20-minute to 30-minute guided meditation and mindful hatha yoga were integrated in each session. Daily journaling, meditation at home and observation at workplace were also required. Both quantitative measure of mindfulness taken throughout the course and qualitative research of students’ journals showcased the result that mindfulness increased acceptance and encouraged reflection among students.

This concept also emerges in Australia and Europe. Australian Institute of Management (AIM) Business School has also been introduced Mindfulness as an elective to its MBA Program since 2017. And at my school – IÉSEG School of Management, Mindfulness has been taught for two academic years in both Lille and Paris Campuses. At ESCP Europe Business School, meditation and yoga have been introduced to students at workshops as a way to escape from stress and learn how to let go.

Discussion: Is it enough to teach a mindfulness module at business school?

Teaching mindfulness to business students through some discursive modules included in the curriculum is not enough. A mindful environment where mindfulness is constantly practiced by teachers, students and the whole system is equally important. While the former plants a seed in students of the mindfulness notion, the latter waters those seeds so that they can put the concept into regular practice. By that way, mindfulness can become their habit since they are students, enabling them to live it in their personal and professional life after school. It is not difficult to find imbalanced and mindless environment where students are designed to follow a very tight schedule full of  courses, for instance 15 courses per semester. Courses go along with lots of assignments, readings and group works with strict deadlines in a short period of time. With personal experience of this stressful calendar and observation of peers, I admitted that students (we) have no choice but run all the time like being put on a treadmill with a fixed high speed without pause to meet given deadlines. Consequently, we have to multitask, spend less time on researching and digging deeply into a specific topic and worsely we do not have enough time for our personal life, like doing exercise, sleeping and having time for reflecting ourselves. In that case, even being taught about mindfulness, we have no chance to practice it.

Furthermore, accreditation plays key role in business schools’ ranking and reputation. Accreditation, on one hand, enhanced business schools’ mindfulness by seeking for maintained quality and continuous enhancement. On the other hand, accreditation is claimed to curb schools’ mindfulness by directing attention to data collection, documentation, excessively specified training and skill development model of education. Meanwhile, the race of gaining accreditation and higher ranking might lead to more ambitiously designed program, creating pressure and burden for students.

AND …

In a nutshell, there’s an increasing demand and concern for practicing mindfulness in the world in recent years. On the personal perspective, practicing mindful living brings us happiness, peace and compassion by treasuring and fully living ‘the here and the now’. On the professional perspective, the cultivating of mindfulness practice improves relationship, performance and satisfaction. Corporates and communities recognize the benefits of having mindful members for compassionate and sustainable organizations and have started training mindfulness to their staff. Therefore, the integration of mindfulness into business schools to prepare students for their better and more balanced personal and professional lives after school is essential. It’s important to be a happy person before becoming a good team player or team leader.

Challenges are indeed existing; but successful programs have also indicated positive signals of accepting this new approach. Mindful leaders of business schools play critical roles in adopting this transformative learning method and creating mindful community among students.


Reference

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Bruch, H., & Menges, J. I. (2010, April). The acceleration trap. Harvard Business Review.

Confido, J. (2013, September 5). Google seeks out wisdom of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Retrieved May 2018, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/global-technology-ceos-wisdom-zen-master-thich-nhat-hanh

Confino, J. (2014, March 28). The Guardian.Retrieved May 2018, from Thich Nhat Hanh: is mindfulness being corrupted by business and finance?: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/thich-nhat-hanh-mindfulness-google-tech

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