"Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate"

When I saw the headline of the recent New York Times Op-Ed -- "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate" -- I thought: Oh, good. This will counter the criticism that meditation and mindfulness in the workplace are tools for corporations to improve productivity while avoiding correcting the injustices that produce workplace stress.

Let's look at the criticism and how the study by Kathleen Vohs and Andrew Hafenbrack, who wrote the Op-Ed, addresses it.

First, the American workplace is often stressful. Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng cite a Stanford-Harvard study that identified the stressors:
"A meta-analysis of 228 studies showed that...major workplace stressors were associated with a lack of health insurance, threats of constant layoffs and job insecurity, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long work hours, low organizational justice, and unrealistic job demands...Stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives."[2]
Corporations care about this stress because it reduces productivity. Rather than address the problems by pushing for universal health insurance, by lowering job demands and shortening work hours, and by providing job security, worker autonomy, and organizational justice, some corporations have introduced mindfulness programs. Kristen Ghodsee worries that these
"employer-sponored mindfulness programs obscure the insanity of our American work culture." [1]
Purser and Ng suggest that mindfulness is being used to promote quietism. Mindfulness, perhaps,
"merely amounts to employee pacification and a form of passive nihilism." [2]
In an earlier piece, Ronald Purser and David Loy wrote that mindfulness training:
"has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals." [3]
Training in peace and acceptance might lead employees "to spiral into complacency and subjugation" [4]. Practices that encourage altruism may also make people easier to exploit. Corporate mindfulness may be the latest version of workplace "cow psychology" -- so called because contented and docile cows give more milk. Ghodsee concludes:
"There is something insidious about corporations and universities promoting mindfulness among their employees, particularly those who might otherwise fight for necessary institutional change." [1]
But wait. If acceptance of reality demotivates people from agitating for institutional change, would it not equally well demotivate them from pursuit of the company's productivity goals? Docile cows might give more milk, but companies want workers who are motivated and energized, not merely docile.

Actually, two points. One, my experience suggests that meditation and mindfulness don't demotivate activism. Two, meditation and mindfulness apparently do demotivate the pursuit of productivity goals for their own sake.

The first point doesn't have much evidence for or against it. I've found that meditation facilitates increased interest in the well-being of all beings, and that this strengthens rather than weakens interest in working for institutional change. But this, as the empirically-minded will note, is anecdotal. We don't yet have careful studies on whether either (a) nonactivists who begin a meditation practice are more likely to become social activists, or (b) activists who begin a meditation practice become more effective, more energetic, or less susceptible to burn-out in their activism.

The second point, thanks to Vohs and Hafenbrack, has a supporting study. Meditation apparently does function, in some contexts, to reduce worker motivation to pursue their company's productivity goals. Vohs and Hafenbrack write:
"Among those who had meditated, motivation levels were lower on average. Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project." [5]
Actual performance, however, was unaffected. Meditation brings both increased focus and decreased motivation, Vohs and Hafenbrack conclude, and these two effects seem to cancel each other out, leaving overall performance neither improved nor worsened.

This "decreased motivation" was for particular tasks. The tasks used in the study "were similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on" [5]. That is, these were tasks that had no evident connection to making the world better. They are tasks that would normally be motivated only by the prospect of extrinsic, self-centered, material reward.

Along with "focused, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment," which, as Hafenbrack and Vohs say, characterize a state of mindfulness [6], meditation also facilitates an increased sense of connection to other beings, and thus increased compassion. It makes sense that a wider, deeper sense of connection, and of the interconnection of all things, would shift motivation away away from tasks with only a material or egocentric reward. Instead, motivation would tend to shift toward concern for others and tasks that support life. Jeremy Hunter writes:
"If people pay attention to their mind, body, and emotions, they begin to approach the world with more openness and inquisitiveness. Quite often that touches off deeper values, such as concern for others and the world at large. A decade ago, Mirabai Bush, founding director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, introduced a mindfulness program at Monsanto, a company that had been widely criticized for perpetuating shortsighted and damaging agricultural practices. At a corporate retreat, a top scientist approached her after a session and said, 'I realized that we’re creating products that kill life. We should be creating products that support life.' It’s a long journey from a personal insight like that to large-scale change, but at least we can say that mindfulness was starting to serve as a disruptive technology within the company.” [7]
We have yet to see American business culture make any notable shift toward compassion. But there is at least reason for seeing a connection between meditation and increased interest in compassion. An increase in workers who are more focused while also less interested in material rewards is a social good -- though not useful for the narrow productivity interests of corporate bosses.

Your boss might not want you to meditate -- though, since performance stays the same, your boss probably doesn't care. The rest of us who share this planet with you would love for you to cultivate compassion, acceptance, and focus.

* * *

[1] Kristen Ghodsee (Bowdoin College, Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies), "The Dangers of McMindfulness," ChronicleVitae, 2016 Apr 5.

[2] Ronald Purser, PhD (San Francisco State University, Professor of Management) and Edwin Ng, PhD (cultural theorist based in Melbourne, Australia; writes on Buddhism and mindfulness for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Religion & Ethics blog), "Corporate Mindfulness is Bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, You're Working Harder and Being Paid Less," Salon, 2015 Sep 27.

[3] Ronald Purser and David Loy (Zen teacher), "Beyond McMindfulness," Huffington Post, 2013 Aug 31.

[4] Norman A.S. Farb (University of Toronto Missauga, Department of Psychology), "From Retreat Center to Clinic to Boardroom? Perils and Promises of the Modern Mindfulness Movement," Religions, 2014.

[5] Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, Professor of Marketing) and Andrew Hafenbrack (Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior), "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate," New York Times, 2018 Jun 14.

[6] Andrew Hafenbrack and Kathleen Vohs, "Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2018 Jul.

[7] Jeremy Hunter (Claremont Graduate University, Drucker School of Management, Executive Mind Leadership Institute, Director and Professor of Practice), "Is Mindfulness Good for Business?" Mindful, 2013 Apr.

1 comment:

  1. This is a tremendously thoughtful and nuanced article.