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Can Mindfulness Create More Impactful Workplaces?

Rachel Zurer April 13, 2018

Cory Smith, who founded five businesses over the course of more than 20 years, wasn’t always focused on using business to create impact in the world. But while documenting World Heritage Sites in the 1990s, a life-altering experience changed his outlook.

“When I was in Jerusalem, I got caught in a suicide bomb,” he says. “That totally changed my dynamic in terms of the way I was thinking about my purpose and what I’m here to do. From that point on, I shifted from entrepreneurship to social entrepreneurship and began focusing on the impact of what I do and how to scale that impact.”

Smith’s latest venture, Wisdom Labs, provides training on mindfulness, resilience, and emotional awareness to companies in an effort to help them boost positive impact on people and the planet. We sat down with Smith to talk about how to foster meaning- and purpose-driven workplaces that support a healthy bottom line.

As we dive into discussing purpose-driven businesses, let’s start with your own. How would you describe Wisdom Labs’ purpose as a company?

Cory Smith: The Nobel Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson once said, “We’re starving for wisdom, and we’re drowning in information.” When Rich Fernandez and I founded the company, we asked ourselves: How can we scale wisdom? How can business be a vehicle for positive social change, and how do we align our purpose, the best of entrepreneurial practices, and that social mission together?

That’s what we call aligned entrepreneurship, and that’s what we’re doing here.

We see business as one of the best vehicles for positive social change, especially now, when the political sphere is so polarized that it’s tearing at our cultural fabric in a lot of ways and challenging our core shared values.

At Wisdom Labs, you focus on teaching mindfulness in the workplace. How does this foster purpose-driven companies and increase the positive impact business can have on the world?

CS: Lasting change will be an inside job, but two common factors can hold businesses back. The first is chronic stress and burnout — 83 percent of US workers say they’re stressed at work. Additionally, our work environments are more volatile, uncertain, complex, and faster-paced than ever before, not to mention the digital demand. Chronic stress creates the conditions for a range of lifestyle diseases that generate massive healthcare costs for companies. At the same time, faster, more complex, and more uncertain work environments take a significant toll on employee engagement and performance.

We think the solution to both of these issues is self-regulation, self-awareness, and connection — and the foundation of these skills is based in mindfulness and compassion training that includes science-based methods to manage stress, build resilience, and increase emotional awareness. These, we find, are the skills that address both chronic stress and the increasing pace and complexity that workers face. Emotional awareness and mindfulness training meet peoples’ needs at work, which can increase engagement and performance.

This is exciting news in a lot of ways because introducing these skills is in the best interest of a company, and we know companies do things that are in their best interest.

We see a growing number of entrepreneurs who are interested in creating positive social change, but we also know that the majority of startups fail. What do you wish more entrepreneurs understood about the mindfulness practices you teach?

CS: As a former CEO of the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference and Hub Bay Area, a co-working space in San Francisco, I’ve spent a lot of time around social entrepreneurs. They do amazing work, but the problem is they’re getting burned out. This often happens because they’re working in service of other people but not tending to themselves.

We need to turn this around so we’re actually taking care of ourselves, our organizations, our teams, and our culture — which enables us to better serve our clients and customers in the long term. The research indicates that the best way to practice better self-care and better organizational care is to bring mindfulness practices into an organization and, if at all possible, embed them into the culture so they begin to take hold.

It’s easy to imagine how a one-day mindfulness workshop or training may play out, but making mindfulness a part of company culture sounds more challenging. What needs to happen in order for that cultural piece to take root?

CS: After working with companies over the last five years or so, we see that the best way to achieve scale is through a multimodal approach that includes in-person, community-based, and digital tools.

It’s helpful to kick off your program with an in-person training, in which a mindfulness expert leads evidence-based lessons and teaches employees about practices they can experience firsthand.

Then, leverage the employee community by empowering people within the organization who are already passionate about this. We’ve built an ambassador program, for example, which supports early adopters and lets them lead from the inside out.

Finally, digital is where these programs really begin to scale. We offer web and mobile tools to help people manage specific work situations. These short lessons improve coping skills and teach tactics that can be applied in particular circumstances, which improves resilience and emotional intelligence over time.

By working in a suite of solutions, you start to build programs that are much more holistic, and the resulting changes become systemic and rooted in the organization.

Tell us a little more about the culture at Wisdom Labs. How do these mindfulness practices and values show up for you personally and for your team?

CS: We all have our own practices, and they vary. Most of our team members practice meditation, and we bring that into the workplace. Our team meetings always start with a guided meditation, for example. People who aren’t ready to lead that can use a recorded meditation or just take a few minutes of silence to ground themselves.

From there, we do regular check-ins with our team members. This seems obvious in some ways, but being intentional about it helps us understand where people are and what they have on their plate — not just at work but also in life. If we know something is going on, we can help support the person who is having a tough time.

We also realize that people have full lives and seek to empower that. We work remotely on Mondays and Fridays, and we come together as a team on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and some Wednesdays — which fosters work-life balance.

What do business leaders most often misunderstand about mindfulness programs?

CS: A growing number of business leaders are beginning to see the benefits of mindfulness, but some people don’t take it seriously. They think programs like these are a nice-to-have or only a West Coast thing — when in fact, if you look at the evidence, things like chronic stress are real issues that people are dealing with.

Still, there’s a pervasive idea that “this is not for me,” and I don’t blame people for that. It’s hard for people to understand the benefits unless they have an objective experience that helps them realize: “This can help me to respond to work situations instead of react, and it allows me to take a minute between a situation, a trigger, and my response.” Those skills are huge in a fast-paced work environment where there’s a premium on collaboration and teamwork.

Managing stress and uncertainty on an individual level is crucial. But some may say that businesspeople should hone these skills on their off time, while Wisdom Labs seems to suggest it can happen in the workplace. That may be a leap for leaders who think emotions should be checked at the door. Why do you feel the workplace can be a fruitful laboratory for developing these skills?

CS: That was our challenge from the beginning. For some, our proposal of scaling wisdom in the workplace seemed ridiculous. We recognized that the workplace has the biggest potential for massive, positive social change, but having these conversations at work isn’t a natural fit for some people.

Our whole journey as a lab has been to stay at the front edge of learning about the problems that people face at work and how to scale solutions. Chronic stress and volatile work environments were the biggest problems we observed, and when we look at the best solutions for those, they are rooted in mindfulness and compassion at their core.

We certainly don’t have all the answers here. That’s why we call ourselves a lab, because it’s all about learning, being inquisitive, and being humble in the process.

Are you hopeful that mindfulness will continue to catch on in organizations? Do you think more mindful organizations will become more purpose-driven?

CS: Yes, organizations are becoming much more receptive to building emotional awareness and resilience, and we’re starting to see that this is really working. Our clients now include Salesforce, Starbucks, Facebook, BlackRock, Ford, GoPro, and Kaiser. I’m super excited to see these skills become part of the fabric of these larger companies, because those are the organizations that influence our global culture and values.

As we see mindfulness take root in some of these organizations, it makes me hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction — especially against the backdrop of today’s political environment. We may not be able to change everything that’s happening politically, but most of us work in companies, and that’s where we can have the most impact — right where we work. That’s really encouraging. 

Stakeholder Capitalism
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