The Case for Taking a Radically Buddhist Approach to Building Company Culture
What if instead of structuring company cultures around values, we structured them around the Buddhist principles of existence?
Hear me out.
If you look at Buddhism as a set of philosophical principles instead of a spiritual practice, there is considerable precedent for this approach. We already apply Aristotelian logic and the Socratic method to education, work, and life.
In fact, we are already adopting and applying Buddhist philosophy in our daily lives. For example, meditation is a pillar of Buddhist practice. A National Institute of Health survey recently found that 8% of Americans — or roughly 18 million adults — meditate.
Large-scale organizations like P&G, Apple, Deutsche Bank, Google, Nike, and even the military all implement on-the-job meditation practices.
Which brings me to my central argument: the Buddhist principles of existence, and specifically accepting these principles, reduces suffering and consequently increases happiness.
As Gretchen Rubin has extensively shown in The Happiness Project, there are three means of achieving happiness, but the most effective is simply reducing unhappiness. And importantly, happy employees and leaders outperform their counterparts.
Of leaders, she writes:
“Happier people also make more effective leaders. They perform better of managerial tasks such as leadership and mastery of information.”
Instead of choosing cultural values based around specific leadership styles and personalities, or even to encourage behaviors that support company growth, my radical suggestion is that companies build values into culture that decrease unhappiness and therefore increase happiness.
Happiness at work does not mean fewer challenges, smaller demands, or lowered expectations. In fact, it lays the foundation for coping with and delivering more.
The Buddhist Principles of Existence
So, what are these principles of existence? In Yael Shy’s brilliant What Now? she lays out the questions at the root of almost suffering.
“Am I resisting impermanence or change?”
“Am I clinging hard to an outcome I want or pushing away something I don’t want?”
“Am I believing that I am separate from life, and love, or clinging to a definition of myself that isn’t true?”
In other words, suffering comes from simple facts of life. To be human is to face impermanence, experience unsatisfactoriness, and grapple with the concept that there is no separate self. Accepting these as unavoidable and true spurs happiness by relieving self-created resistance and tension.
Interestingly, in company cultures across the country, we already build values that address these principles.
We set “adaptability” and “flexibility” as values, which are really strategies for confronting impermanence. We label “teamwork” a value to stress the importance of interconnection, the underlying truth behind the principle of “no separate self.”
The key difference is that we don’t create these values with the humanity of our employees in mind.
Most of us do not think our culture’s end goal is to reduce suffering and amplify happiness, or to promote behaviors that lead to performance-enhancing acceptance of change, lack of control, and interconnection.
But we can. And it doesn’t have to involve any woo. Here’s how.
“Engagement, satisfaction, and happiness often depend less on the conditions in which one works and more on whether expectations are aligned and met,” according to Matthew Wride and Tracey Maylett in The Employee Experience.
The problem is that everything is impermanent, including expectations. Priorities shift, roles change, new people join teams, and leadership transitions.
Employees — and people in general — don’t like change. It makes navigating social structures difficult. It creates tension and miscommunication. It muddies who does why and why. But companies are constantly changing.
Instead of contributing to the negative associations and feelings that come with instability and change, setting values around impermanence can mitigate them.
Write out ten to twelve behaviors underneath “adaptability,” “flexibility,” or even “impermanence” and “change” to align employee expectations around what’s to come. Let new employees know they may go from Product Manager to Q&A Engineer in less than a year or that their massive project assignment could be shelved. Emphasize why accepting this workflow is critical to their personal growth as well as company growth.
By simply letting employees know change is an inextricable part of culture, you will move them towards an acceptance that will make them happier and more adaptive.
In a performance-driven culture, unsatisfactoriness is the Achilles heel that takes down individual contributors and teams alike. It boils down to clinging to one positive outcome after another or avoiding failure at all costs. It’s also a core component of destructive perfectionism.
When top performers face failure or can’t get their gold stars, they leave. Or they make bad decisions that stall growth and create problems for the overall company.
But how do you take highly motivated people and tell them not to cling to success? Even if they could let go, wouldn’t that make them lose their edge?
As Dan Harris writes in 10% Happier:
“Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can. When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you’re not attached to the outcome — so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient.”
Another way to put this comes from Steven Pressfield’s manifesto on the writing process, The War of Art. He emphasizes:
“The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.”
To make unsatisfactoriness tolerable, emphasize values such as “exceptional work for its own sake,” “intention,” and “thoughtfulness.” Let your employees pursue their want of achievement, but don’t force them to cling to results out of their control.
No matter how excellent a proposal is in every way, there is always the possibility it will be rejected. The perfect line of code might go unseen because market conditions change consumer interests. A perfect process may blow up because of an unexpected bug in another part of the system.
Stress to your employees that they can’t control everything all the time, but they can control the care and effort they put into their immediate work. Emphasize in your values and culture that setting an intention for a positive outcome and then doing the work itself to the best possible degree is the true goal.
The other element of unsatisfactoriness is an inability to stop moving and recognize success, either because the hedonic treadmill is set to overdrive or because the fear of failure is too great.
Personally, this type of “unsatisfactoriness” is usually the source of any unhappiness I experience in work. To confront this problem, I use three quick strategies, which I also implement with my teams.
1. Celebrate Victories: When I achieve my outcome, I force myself to stop working, even if it’s only for 10–15 minutes, to do something I love like going to the library or reading.
2. Remember Wins: I keep a “Win Jar” where I write out major wins on slips of paper and place them in the jar. I pull wins out when I feel the weight of “unsatisfactoriness.”
3. Keep a Record: Every day, I list “3 Amazing Things That Happened Today.” I review my daily lists every six months and create a composite to remind myself to pause and reflect on what I have.
No Separate Self
Understanding ourselves as unique individuals with distinct characteristics, perspectives, and experiences is critical to our self-identity. However, only seeing ourselves as individuals can lead to intense feelings of isolation, pressure, and loneliness.
In company cultures, meeting tight deadlines, specializing in narrow disciplines, and seeking individualized recognition often foster high levels of independence.
But as the proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, you must go together.”
Accepting that there is no separate self — that we are not just individual waves but collectively water — increases the sense that we are fundamentally connected, not alone. This sense may free us to ask for help or give help in return. When we feel our identity is shaken or our legacy compromised, remembering our interconnection brings us peace.
And in companies, understanding the concept of no separate self is critical to overall performance. The best teams, just like in sports, are not necessarily made up of tons of disparate superstars, but players who know how to work towards a uniform goal together.
In Give and Take, author Adam Grant uncovers:
“People actually make more accurate and creative decisions when they’re choosing on behalf of others than themselves. When people make decisions in a self-focused state, they’re more likely to be biased by ego threat and often agonize over trying to find a choice that’s ideal in all possible dimensions.”
To achieve this end, I recommend replacing the catchall value of “teamwork” with “expedition behavior.”
Expedition behavior developed as a mountaineering term. In this context, mountaineers put the group’s goals and missions first and show the same amount of concern for others in the group as themselves.
Celebrating this behavior in company culture will encourage more giving and collaboration, which ultimately leads to better results.
How might you celebrate this kind of behavior?
1. Write Examples: Underneath a given value, write out and share specific behaviors framed within the work environment to flesh out the value as more than just a term.
2. Recognition in All-Hands Meetings: In all-hands meetings, recognize the individuals and teams who most exemplify expedition behavior, using specific examples everyone can clearly see.
3. Company-Wide Recognition: For exemplary givers, send company emails highlighting how their selflessness directly led to major results for the overall company.
Whether or not you choose to apply a Buddhist framework to your company culture, remember to set intention behind your values.
They should represent not just what the culture is today, but what it can be. They should also reflect what will energize, motivate, satisfy, and bring happiness to your employees.
Not only will this approach increase your individual impact on your employees and make their lives more meaningful, it will also improve overall performance and lead to company growth.
After all, as William Butler Yeats wrote:
“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure not this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
Alida Miranda-Wolff is the Founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech companies focused on driving company performance by shaping talent and developing culture. Follow her work on Twitter and VentureBeat.