Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stealth Buddhism: Dharma in the Business World

While most practitioners “get” the big handful of basic tenets of Buddhism (the two truths, the three poisons, the four noble truths, up to if not necessarily the twelve links of dependent origination), applying these to our business lives can be baffling. For example, what does the dharma have to say about inventory control? Or, what does the Buddha tell us is the best strategy for negotiating a big deal? Or how do we keep line employees calm under pressure?

Buddhism was meant as a practice in the world. Quite an irony, since Buddhism is so infrequently taught today in an applied form. Sutras are translated, concepts are explained commentary-style, meaning what they “mean,” not how to use them. We’re almost never taught how to apply these dharma guidelines; how to use them in explicit business situations. We seem more comfortable with theory than practice.

If we’ve learned from our own experience with meditation and the dharma that stomping our heals and running around like warriors of certainty doesn’t make us more efficient and effective at the office, doesn’t make us better bosses, then perhaps it’s time to look for ways to apply Buddhism at work, to look at questions to ask ourselves so that modalities for applying the dharma appear.

There is a new sect of Buddhism developing in the workplace called Stealth Buddhism. From West Coast to East, Google to Monsanto to West Point, companies are teaching meditation and mindfulness, they just aren’t using the “B” word. As one consultant said: “As long as I don’t call it Buddhism, I can teach it anywhere.” “It’s basic Buddhist principles in a secular dissolution,” as another explained how she gets away with teaching dharma in corporate settings. Business Buddhism, it seems to most consultants, best serves us when it is Stealth Buddhism. Tis Buddhism without the label, I suspect, would have greatly appealed to the Buddha.

The dharma teaches us to be wise in our choices, disciplined in our action, caring, dependable and trustworthy in our interpersonal relations. That’s where we begin in applying the dharma to business. When our decision arises from one of the three poisons–greed, anger and delusion–our choice is never wise. So when it is time to make a decision, ask yourself: what am I trying to get out of this and why? If greed and/or anger are the motivation, then reconsider how you might effect the change in a way that honest, peaceful and beneficial.
The Pali Canon includes general principles for applying the dharma to business: Avoid any occupation or job whose main function causes harm and suffering or any kind of work that leads to one's own inner deterioration. Examples from the early scriptures are raising animals for slaughter or abuse, or slaughtering or abusing animals; manufacturing or dealing in weapons or arms; dealing in human slavery or prostitution; and producing or selling alcoholic beverages. The Buddha also says that his followers should avoid businesses and business practices that are deceitful, hypocritical, high-pressured, or dishonest. Obviously, the dharma implies we not engage in any kind of business that requires us to violate right speech and right action.

What does this say to terminating a “bad hire”? It certainly doesn't suggest the all too common three trumped-up writeups rather than being honest and paying for the unemployment. In the longrun, this type of dishonesty harms everyone? And there is always a sensitive, compassionate way to terminate a bad hire–kindly, gently, generously and honestly.

The Buddha places the positive aspects of dharma in the workplace under the three convenient headings of

1.     Rightness regarding actions

Rightness regarding actions means that business systems should be designed to encourage and allow workers to fulfill their duties diligently and conscientiously.

2.     Rightness regarding persons, and

Rightness regarding persons means that due respect and consideration should be shown to employers, employees, colleagues, and customers. An employer, for example, should assign his workers chores according to their ability, pay them adequately, promote them when they deserve a promotion and give them appropriate time off. Cooperation should be stressed over competitive in the corporate culture, and merchants and suppliers for the business should be held to the same standards.

3.     Rightness regarding objects.

Rightness regarding objects means that in business transactions the articles or services to be sold should be quality-produced and presented truthfully.

Once we get past these generalizations, we need to learn to use our analytic and deductive reasoning skills in applying dharma in the workplace. One way to learn to do this is to take each of the basic concepts and ask how it could be applied in any given situation. Start asking yourself, reflectively, questions like: What does the first noble truth say about this? What would be the least harmful way of dealing with this? What practices would best serve my employees and company around this issue? It will seem awkward at first because we haven’t done it before so let’s look at a couple of examples.

Consider inventory control and maintenance. What do the bodhisattva vows [Do no evil; do only good; save all sentient beings], for example, have to say about inventory control? In other words, what would be the least harmful and most beneficial way to manage and control a company’s inventory?

The garage at my local gas station, uses a just-in-time inventory control system. Which is the most beneficial way the garage can operate. It orders everything it needs from its suppliers for delivery either the day it is needed or the day before. It is clearly the most beneficial way for that business to operate its inventory–production occurs ontime and nothing is wasted either in terms of financial or human resources or in terms of the environment.

Other types of businesses might need a dependent demand inventory management system that inventories only what production demands and when it needs it, or even a history based inventory control system in which items are stocked based on a history of what was previously used. To determine which is dharma-suggested, ask: What type of inventory control system would be the least harmful and most beneficial to the company, its employees, and the environment?

In the case of dependent or history-based systems, as the Vina Sutra (SN 35.205) tells us, we should not manage our stock in a way that is too tight nor in a way that is too loose. The dharma suggests it should be tight but not so tight that we have shortages. Mindful monitoring and controls can keep everything flowing without interruption.

Question is, are we asking ourselves, in relation to our operating systems: Are these systems mindful of our company's need to be as beneficial as possible to all concerned, or are they just expedient, based on our greed to get things done rather than to do them “right”? Are they honest rather than dishonest? Are they a source of suffering rather than a source of peacfulness for those operating them? 

Here's another example: what does the dharma have to say about negotiating? As a negotiating strategy, the dharma would suggest reconciliation. In reconciliation, we fully accept whatever is presented to us, examine it mindfully, look clearly at the conditions, then we suggest whatever change or changes would be most beneficial for us and still be appropriate to the conditions. We simply do that over and over, never becoming impatient, frustrated or angry, never trying to get our own way, never becoming frustrated or angry. That way we stay clear-headed throughout the negotiation, which allows us to make the best deal. And if no deal is possible, we see that clearly and patiently accept it and move on.

Staying calm in crises, staying calm in customer service confrontations, just plain staying calm is a valuable and critical skill in any workplace. And what is the best practice for staying calm? Meditation. 2600 of experience has taught us that meditation is the most effective tool for developing calmness. Encouraging those on the firing lines to practice meditation, even perhaps giving them meditation time and a meditation space at work, will dramatically impact those under pressure, as well as customer satisfaction and office morale.

One San Francisco hotel, for example, had the executive committee (the senior management team) meditate together every morning for 20 minutes. The human resources manager said she noticed a significant reduction in conflict between those sitting and their direct reports.

Not all the results of applying the dharma in the workplace are easily measurable, not all will seem beneficial in the shortterm. But if we apply the dharma when conditions are right and with skillful means, the dharma will always be of benefit, both to the company and to the workers and to all sentient beings.