There has been a lot of talk lately about the “commoditization of mindfulness” in corporate America. Invariably, when I post an article that talks about using strategies of mindfulness or positive psychology to improve employee satisfaction or engagement, I get a mixed response. There are some who believe that by promoting these strategies, I am simply giving another tool to large corporations they can use to control and exploit their workers. Positive psychology may be used, they fear, to keep workers “positive” in spite of being treated miserably.
I generally disagree with these comments. I think employers should look after the wellbeing of their workers. And as an employee myself, I wouldn’t mind getting a dose of mindfulness or positive psychology from my superiors on a regular basis. I’ve worked at places where I was miserable and I’ve worked at places where I was happy. I’d rather be happy.
And if this means that the company saves money by trading some other employment benefit for happiness, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Imagine two companies . . . one that treats their employees like shit but pays them well; OR one that pays much less but creates a positive workplace where people are able to do meaningful and enjoyable work that taps into their greatest strengths and their most important goals. Which one would you rather work at?
I’m not a huge fan of our capitalist system incentivizing everything around corporate profits, but when a company works on creating greater wellbeing for their employees and customers because it is the profitable thing to do, this is an example of capitalism working the way it is supposed to.
All of that being said, these skeptics do bring up an important point. In our capitalist society, corporations will prioritize profits over people and will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to do so. It is a good question to consider how and when positive psychology could be used or abused to exploit employees.
Here are 5 questions to ask to help differentiate between engagement and exploitation:
- What is the primary goal or incentive? Is the primary purpose of the intervention to enhance productivity and profitability or to increase wellbeing?
- Is the participation mandatory? Does the organization require individuals to practice certain techniques? Or is this offered as a benefit and a growth opportunity for those who are interested?
- Who has to change? Is this only about the individual adapting to the needs and environment of the workplace? Or does the workplace also have to change to accommodate the needs of the individual?
- Does it exist in culture and in practice from the top down? Is this an intervention applied exclusively to the line employees while some corporate overlord looks down from above? Or is it an intervention that is embraced and practiced at all levels of the organization?
- Can the individual benefit at the expense of the organization? Businesses adopt these strategies because they make their employees more productive. But it is only natural that if individuals begin to use positive psychology or mindfulness to get more in touch with their values, those values may lead them away from, rather than towards, the goals of the organization.
In a recent interview on the Buddhist Geeks podcast, Dr. Ronald Purser, a Zen Buddhist teacher and a professor of management at SFSU, describes “High Wisdom Organizations” that use mindfulness, not as a way to “pacify” their work force, but as a way to create a healthier and more virtuous organization.
According to Purser, at these HWOs, “mindfulness is not just a way to help individuals cope or adapt or accommodate or even accept a dysfunctional culture.” On the contrary, they “widen the scope” of their mindfulness programs “to look at the collective sources of stress and suffering.”
While an exploitative program may only be about individuals being inoculated against the institutional sources of stress in the organization, a true engagement strategy would have sensitivity towards these systemic problems and seek to eliminate or improve them. Corporate positive psychology, if done right, should help the entire system evolve.
by Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)
P.S. My course on Positive Leadership in Spas and Hospitality will be starting again in January 2014. If you would like to learn more about the course, please email me: email@example.com.