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How Mindfulness Inspires 360-Degree Social Responsibility

Michael Kourabas
| Tuesday April 1st, 2014 | 3 Comments

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“One way to read the injunction for Right Conduct, an essential part of the Eightfold Path, is to see it as calling us—as citizens—to translate the dharma into specific acts of social responsibility.” – Buddhist author and professor, Charles Johnson, writing in the Tricycle magazine.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has been in the news a lot lately, in part due to its infiltration of the board room, and the list of high-level executives and thought leaders who practice mindfulness exercises such as meditation is long. To those of us who meditate, this is not really a surprise (in light of meditation’s myriad benefits), and though the co-opting of an ancient Buddhist practice for profit is slightly disturbing, as the renowned Mindfulness master, Thich Nhat Hahn, recently put it: With mindfulness, the means and the ends are one in the same.

But what is mindfulness?  Technically, it is the nonjudgmental observation of the present moment, no matter what that moment may entail, and it is arguably the paramount Buddhist instruction. The essence of mindfulness, though, is simply “paying attention,” the natural byproduct of which is heightened compassion and consideration of the impact of one’s actions on others.  Some real-world examples of mindful behavior might include: pausing to think before habitually reacting; choosing to recycle, rather than to litter; or choosing to eat humanely raised chicken, rather than broiler chicken from a factory farm. Put another way, mindful behavior is behavior that is socially responsible.

Mindfulness, corporations and “360-Degree Social Responsibility”

From a corporate standpoint, then, mindfulness could manifest either externally or internally. Corporate policies that are externally mindful (or “externally socially responsible”) would be those that concern how the corporation interacts with the outside world.  The type of conduct typically associated with classic corporate social responsibility (CSR) endeavors, in other words. Does the corporation minimize its impact on the environment?  Does it incorporate human rights into its day-to-day operations? Does it do diligence on its supply chain?

Internal mindfulness (or “internal social responsibility”), on the other hand, would refer to employee well-being. If a company is being internally socially responsible, it is paying attention to the way it treats its own people.  Does it pay an adequate wage? Does it give its employees reasonable maternity and paternity leave? Or, is the corporation mindful of the impact of the job on the individual? The most well-known example of a company taking internal social responsibility seriously (though not referring to it as such) is Google. Famous for its napping pods, yoga classes and community gardens, the company even offers a class on the practice of mindfulness itself.  “Search Inside Yourself,” as the course is called (pun intended, I imagine), is one of the company’s most popular offerings. (Perhaps this wasn’t so far off, after all.)

We could therefore call a company “360-Degree Socially Responsible” if it is mindful of the way it treats both its own employees as well as the larger, external world. Yet, companies rarely — if ever — use sustainability or CSR language to talk about (what I’m referring to as) their internal social responsibility efforts.  Why does a company’s CSR or sustainability report not have a section on employee satisfaction or a company’s wellness programs? To behave mindfully is really to act socially responsible, and from a corporate standpoint the 360-degree view ought to concern both those within the company’s walls as well as those without.

The point isn’t to redirect the focus of CSR/sustainability from how companies are warming the planet and abusing human rights to how they are are overworking their employees and ignoring the very clear data about happiness and productivity. Rather, it is to stress that any external CSR program without a corresponding internal dimension — and vice versa — is an exercise in hypocrisy.

Changing the way we talk about social responsibility

Even Google, a company that is arguably getting this whole sustainability/social responsibility thing right, is not talking about it in the right way. When the company discusses what it is doing “on its own turf,” it focuses entirely on its “Google Green” initiatives, and there is no internal discussion on its separate CSR page. In other words, it chooses to ignore the incredible things it is doing for its own people unless these “perks” also relate to its external environmental sustainability measures. In part, that is because Google, like many companies, misguidedly uses sustainability language exclusively when talking about the environment; relegates its “other” CSR efforts to a separate, less flashy Web page; and ignores the fact that all of these efforts — be they human rights protections, green initiatives, or workplace benefits — are really part of the same operating philosophy.

While it would be great if more companies followed Google’s lead and literally offered training in mindfulness practices, the real point is that CSR is about more than just whether a company is moving toward renewable energy and considering its impact on local communities.  It is just as much about how companies treat their own, and without this 360-degree approach, businesses are really only going part of the way.

(For more information on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, check out Thich Nhat Hahn’s “The Miracle of Mindfulness” or Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”)


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  • Cathy Clifton

    Wonderful article… as a student of Buddhism, this is on my mind daily – right livelihood is important to me and that’s why I work in sustainability. Like everything in the universe, this concept is complex but simple – mindfulness training could definitely improve the corporate outlook.

  • Author

    Thanks, Cathy!

  • Deborah Lynn

    I think this piece, in framing how we talk about responsibility, speaks to the way a truly integrated value system doesn’t distinguish between internal and external wellness. As human beings need to understand the mind-body connection in order to maintain optimum health, so any corporate social responsibility conversation with integrity must take into account how policies and procedures impact the health and wellbeing of individuals within and outside of it’s proverbial “walls”, along with the environment within which it operates, in the most global sense.