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Mindfulness Is Being Taught To MBAs At This Top B-School — Here's Why

The Buddhist technique has permeated blue-chips Google, Apple, Sony — and The Lancaster MBA

Wed Apr 13 2016

In the pursuit of mindfulness it helps that Peter Lenney is a Theravada Buddhist. “I was introduced to Buddhism after I’d been in industry for more than 20 years,” says Peter, who served as global business director of International Paint Marine Coatings, which supplies coating systems for ships, at the time a $500 million turnover business.

“There’s no business like paint business!” reads his academic profile.

The concept of mindfulness has permeated blue-chips including Google, Apple, and Sony. It has a ludicrous number of definitions. But the one BusinessBecause finds a fit is: “Paying more attention to the present moment — to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you.”

But Peter takes animated issue with the contemporary meaning. “We call that McMindfulness,” he jests. “Brand blather.”

The blending of the ethical ideals of Buddhist philosophy and business practicality is a central pillar of the Lancaster MBA. It runs throughout the program as the Mindful Manager module. “It’s the core thread of the whole MBA at Lancaster; the program pivots around it,” says Peter, the MBA program director, who developed and teaches the module.

So how does Lancaster define mindfulness?

“Tricky,” he says. “……It’s about appropriate, powerful and useful conduct. Doing the right thing at the right time in the right way with the right individual. It’s all about conduct. It’s very much focused on developing an individualized capability…. It’s about choice. And being mindful is about being capable of making difficult choices.”

Most corporations that have jumped aboard the mindfulness bandwagon, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock included, have adopted the concept as a medical application. Being “mindful” is for some employees a way of coping with stress, anxiety, depression, pain, and even addiction.

Peter says, with no hint of conformity: “Mindfulness is a Buddhist technique that has been taken hostage by the psychotherapeutic community.”

But there are more relevant applications in business — it is claimed mindfulness can promote flexibility, awareness, resilience, better decision-making, and, ultimately, job performance. This is what gets Peter amped up.

“It’s all, in a sense, about making quality judgements and decisions,” he says. “….That’s the heart of business.”

A visit from Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising giant, gives Lancaster MBAs the chance to test their judgments in real-time. “It’s a live case. They get to face up to radical changes, such as the crash in the oil price or the Arab Spring,” Peter says, adding vigorously: “They absolutely love it.”

Practical philosophy should be the foundation of all education, he claims.

The burning question, though, is does mindfulness really work? Most studies have focused on the physical and psychological benefits to employees — their well-being.

But programs have proved beneficial in more practical terms. Aetna for example partnered eMindful and the American Viniyogo Institute on a 12-week pilot scheme for around 240 employees. The company found workers gained 62 minutes per week of extra productivity — estimated to be worth $3,000 per employee each year.

Intel too has used mindfulness as a leadership practice and claims to have seen improvements in productivity and job satisfaction.

A study by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School found mindfulness can lead to “improvements in innovative thinking [and] communication skills”.

It’s also worth noting that in these studies participants reported significant reductions in stress levels — something the World Health Organization says costs American businesses $300 billion per year.

Nonetheless, Peter senses hyperbole: “It’s massively over-hyped.”

At Lancaster, mindfulness is all about mobilizing students’ thinking. “Often they don’t understand that most of what they do is locked in habit, history, educational trajectory. They’re trapped by their history. They see it as the way the world should be. We shape that. We say no it’s not.”

Peter adds: “It opens up a whole gambit of creative possibilities.”