When Buddhism In Business Is A Bad Idea

I’m no expert on Buddhism. I’m not even a novice. In fact, the only practice I have that comes out of the tradition is one of today’s greatest buzzwords: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness: Yes

Mindfulness at work? Yeah, what a great idea!

According to psychologist Hans Eysenck, “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, prevent[s] the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” Mindfulness, however, is difficult to achieve in this era of open-space offices. Yet, a mindful approach to work, one afternoon a week (or even a room!) for mandatory quiet at the office would likely make us more productive.

Basic Buddhism

At the core, Buddhists believe they should practice loving kindness towards every living being. A concern for the welfare of all other living things is paramount to happiness. Buddhist students are taught to live in harmony with everybody, regardless of race or religion, because all are equal.

Yes, yes! Awesome! I’m on board.

According to Buddhism, all people are subject to the same laws of nature — birth, old age and death. Buddha taught that everything in the world is impermanent and that the failure to understand this leads to much of our unhappiness and suffering.

Totally get it…

Equal But Not The Same

In the past year I’ve interacted on a personal level with several people who bring Buddhist principles to the office. Each of them have told me their goal is to treat all people equally. As a manager, it’s driven by a desire not to appear to give preference to someone, or to look like they’re playing favorites.

On the surface this seems like a brilliant idea. But here’s how it made me (and many others I know) feel: unheard, unseen, unvalued, unappreciated, unimportant, average and just-like-everyone else.

While the essence of all beings may be of equal value, what and how we each contribute is vastly different. To treat each person the same is unproductive, illogical and, I believe, a total misunderstanding of the teachings. It just doesn’t work.

Give everyone the same amount of loving kindness? Yes. The same amount of compassion? Yes. But treat every living thing the same? Hell no.

Are you telling me I should treat my father the same way I treat my houseplants?! Is it ok to kill a cow, because that’s only one life, while harvesting vegetables is worse because it kills thousands of plants and insects?

Acknowledge The Individuals 

In the workplace, we have all kinds of people. Some need pressure to perform; others wilt under it. Some employees need to be heard and acknowledged by their boss, while others need little to no recognition to feel they’re part of the team.

If we treat everyone the same, we miss an enormous opportunity to embrace their individuality and skill. Every being is equally valuable, but what each has to offer is unique. Each is equally important, but also has different needs.

When we treat everyone the same, we truly fail at creating a highly functioning team, one where each person offers their best assets.

A Community Of Deference

A skilled leader honors the equality of her team members and also sees the unique value each of them possesses. She knows she can’t communicate with and treat each person the same, because (duh!) they’re different. She honors each individual not because they’re the same, but precisely because they are different.

Talk about mindfulness! This takes a whole new level of depth and presence on the part of management. But it also takes away some of the pressure. Here’s how…

A team with this type of leadership becomes a community of deference, one where we defer to those who have the knowledge and know-how we lack. The leader still guides the ship and steps up to the plate to offer her own strengths, but she is better at sharing the power.

In yoga, we would say this moves the seat of the guru (insert teacher, leader or manager here depending on your circumstance) into the heart of every practitioner (student, team member, employee). The guru is no longer the one person in the very special seat at the front of the room who knows everything for everyone. Instead, the guru is in all of us…

A Equals B

In my marriage, the team of my husband, Aaron, and I, treat each other as equals. But we have different skills and gifts to bring to the relationship.

I love making connections with friends and family. I enjoy making the effort to reach out and write a note to someone or give them a call. I’m very good at knowing what to say and when and how to say it. While Aaron thinks of these people too, he isn’t very skilled at keeping these connections.


Flat tire didn’t even spoil our anniversary…

He is, however, a rock star with cars; he changes the oil, rotates the tires, hell he even switched out my CV joints. It’s easy for him. He does it quickly. It saves us money.

I have changed my own oil once, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I could rotate the tires, but they might fall off as I pull out of the driveway!

It would be a waste of our collective time to have me work on our cars and for him to write thank you notes. Not to mention we’d both be bitching and moaning the whole time.

These tasks are not the same. Not even close. But their value in our relationship IS. I do A, he does B and somehow they equal each other.

Same, same, but different.

It means we’re both happier, because we’re doing something at which we excel. In the long run it makes us more appreciative of each other (thank God I don’t have to fix the cars!) and also gives us more time to spend together.

A Harmonious Workplace

I love that people are evolving the workplace and bringing Buddhist concepts and mindfulness to work. It is so fantastic that people are open to shifting perspectives and creating harmony. But we can’t do it by treating everyone the same. Because we aren’t the same…