Zen or zen buddhism may be one of the most abused concepts of our time. Does it matter? No.
I use the word “abused” but what I mean is “misused” because zen and mindfulness are often deployed as marketing gimmicks.
A pretty pebble sells for more if you call it a zen pebble and a garden pond becomes more special if you start calling your garden a zen garden, which helps sell ponds.
Zen is not about the pond. It is about the garden.
It is about what is right here, right now.
And it just struck me that that’s where things often go wrong too. Zen does not say “if there is a bear in front of you that is about to attack you, right here, right now, smile at it sweetly because it is probably empathy bear and empathy bear feels your pain”. But that’s what a lot of people seem to think.
Zen says “if there is a bear in front of you that is about to attack you, right here, right now, get out of there but do not forget to grab your rucksack”.
Because if the bear gets you, it won’t matter whether you took your rucksack or not, but if the bear doesn’t, it will.
When you fall off a cliff, get stuck on a branch and find tigers waiting below and a juicy ripe berry in front of you, go for the berry because it won’t matter to the tigers. But it will make a difference for you, regardless of whether the tigers get you or not.
Zen is practical. Zen says “look after your garden and stop obsessing over the damn pond.” The garden will bring you food. The pond won’t. Zen also says “don’t discriminate between people with pond and people without pond”.
A veggie patch is much more zen than a pond (unless the pond was already there anyway).
Zen is about letting go of the idea that you have to have a pond.
Zen is not about hedonism either, however. That would be the same as obsessing over the pond.
Millennials, we are told, have a different attitude to work than their elders. They want to work for organisations committed to values and ethics, where there is a higher purpose than simply making a profit.
Businesses wanting to attract the best millennial talent might therefore learn a few lessons from ancient spiritual teachings, such as those of Buddhism. The fourth largest religion in the world has been focused on attaining a higher meaning and following the path to moksha – liberation – since the sixth century.
Organisations, especially in the non-profit and charity sector, can re-energise their employees by aligning the way they measure performance with the principles of Buddhism. This could also improve productivity, an important measure of economic activity and living standards.
These were the findings of our research. We interviewed 63 executives from not-for-profit organisations and found that most had simply imported practices and strategic models from the business world to measure their performance. Unfortunately, this is a world driven by maximising profit, which goes against the underlying purposes of these organisations.
Engaged and energised
Manystudies have established that most staff are not only motivated by money, while the carrot and stick approach, which mixes reward and punishment, is also outdated. Employee engagement is now the ultimate goal for managers and it involves more than just job satisfaction.
It might be that an individual is perfectly content with a job and yet not engaged in it. Instead, engagement is found where work is absorbing, and to which employees feel naturally dedicated; work that one gets wrapped up in and is energised by. Engaged employees are prepared to go beyond the call of duty and actually drive the business; they show up because they want to, not because they have to.
Some might think spirituality and business should not be mixed in together, but both play an important role in society and people’s lives. They should be seen as interdependent. Spiritual disciplines may very well offer insights into techniques for achieving lasting employee engagement that everyone is searching for. At the very least, ancient wisdom could offer some lessons for understanding what it means to seek and achieve higher meaning in your life.
A different focus
This is perhaps even more applicable in not-for-profit organisations. Many non-profits use standard performance measures, that have been tailored to help traditional organisations maximise revenues while reducing costs. The rationale provided for the use of performance measurement is also usually a commercial one, suggesting that measurement only supports efficiency and effectiveness.
This can obscure their ethical and benevolent dimensions. Focus instead is placed on understanding data like the number of products delivered, or what rating a service has in numerical terms. Employees are rewarded for their capacities to score highly on given criteria. Although none of this is inherently wrong, it means that discussions and attention are pushed towards money.
Meanwhile, rich social interactions, trust, and positive, but unquantifiable, stories go unnoticed and unrewarded. Employees would be better able to believe in their organisation if it’s clear that their performance measures drive social connectedness and create social value.
Our research found that spiritual philosophies can provide this. Buddhism, for example, teaches its followers to take greater personal responsibility for their actions, to have a healthy detachment where necessary, and embrace a wholesome view of their actions.
This can include how socially connected and conscious employees are, but also their entrepreneurial awareness. Risk-taking and innovation are core to many of these organisations so employees must have the mindfulness to evaluate and exploit opportunities when they arise.
It also applies to financial meaning – how money is spent, but also where it comes from. Spiritual rationales for goals and activities can complement commercial ones. Most employees in the non-profit sector want to help people and this is what motivates them to work in this industry, often for less money.
Evidence also suggests that embracing spirituality within organisations may lead to better decision-making, enhanced creativity, reduced absenteeism, and greater emotional control.
Buddhist principles are not just for not-for-profits, however. Spiritual principles such as higher meaning, awareness (of self and the environment) and connectedness (belonging to a community), are likely to be relevant in other sectors, particularly if corporations want to re-engage and re-energise their workforce.
Many are already dabbling in this with corporate social responsibility programmes, corporate volunteering, and sustainability targets. Several large companies, such as Google and the retailer Target, are even already adopting spiritually-informed practices to reap some of these benefits. But management practices such as measuring performance have not caught up with the deeper desire that many employees might have. We are just scratching the surface of how we can find more meaning and more productivity from our work.