How not to become that A** that everyone hates at work: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

Written by PJ Teh
7 mins read
Published on Oct 21, 2022

Editor’s note: 

Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to ponder under this mini-article series.

The last section of this mini-article series deals with conducting oneself. Missed the first three? We’ve got your back!

  1. How often do we wisely choose our workplace?
  2. How do I make tough decisions and solve issues at work?
  3. Romantic attraction at work! You are attached/married, how should we conduct ourselves? 

TLDR: How can we avoid becoming the colleague that everyone loves to hate? Asking for advice from your subordinates during your 1-on-1s and applying metta just might be key! In this article, we explore how to treat our colleagues using Dhamma principles.

Unless one lives and works entirely alone, nowadays most work gets done in teams and in companies, where one has to work with other people. 

The Dhamma also provides very good advice on how should one treat other people at work.

‘This is beneath me’ and other egoistical mindstates

One thing that I have frequently seen is the inflation of ego in the workplace, where one’s work boosts and increases the sense of self

This manifests in different ways, which I see repeatedly: the belief of “I’m so busy” (and secretly taking pride in being overworked); the belief that “this is beneath me”; over-spending; talking about one’s work all the time; infinite fault-finding;  etc. 

Again, the Buddha’s advice is a very good direct antidote to the inflated ego from work. 

I am frequently reminded of this whenever I recite the Metta sutta, the Buddha’s words on loving-kindness: 

Let them be able and upright,

Straightforward and gentle in speech,

Humble and not conceited,

Contented and easily satisfied,

Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.

Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,

Not proud or demanding in nature.

This text serves as a reminder that what’s important at work isn’t your “accomplishments”, but your spiritual progress, in these qualities of wisdom, kindness, humility, calm, and peace.

The Buddha’s invitation to criticism 

On humility, the Buddha demonstrated this himself: in a sutta, he invited the sangha to criticise his behaviour, as part of the ritual invitation for critique after the Rains Retreat. 

Then the Buddha looked around the Saṅgha of monks, who were silent. He addressed them: “Come now, monks, I invite you all: Is there anything I’ve done by way of body or speech that you would criticize?” 

The equivalent of this in a corporate context might be to simply ask for advice from a subordinate, in your 1-on-1s. 

This type of behaviour is quite unthinkable in many corporate contexts. Still, in this day and age, this might be very necessary, especially as people progress upwards. 

There is less in it for people around you to tell you the truth, and power reduces the psychological safety required for people to tell you what they truly think. 

Asking for advice and inviting criticism allows you to re-establish your psychological safety, which in turn allows you to get the data points of your potential blind spots from the people around you .

Managers & the placebo effect

Another aspect of dealing with others rests in how we see the people around us in the first place

One of the most striking books I read that heavily influenced my direction as a manager, was Cure 

This was a book about the placebo (and its negative counterpart, the nocebo) effect. Most people think of the placebo as something false or ineffective, but the book emphasised how surprisingly effective placebos can be (e.g. even if I told you that a pill for altitude sickness is a placebo, the placebo apparently can help a significant percentage of patients!) 

The act of suggesting that you might get better with a placebo seems to have a surprisingly large effect on the person receiving the suggestion. 

This caused me to ponder, what sort of placebo or nocebo effect managers and leaders can have on their subordinates? 

If a fake pill can have such a significant impact, wouldn’t a manager or leader’s words have the same (or even bigger) impact? 

See also  Toxic Positivity: When Always Looking On The Bright Side Is Harmful

Again, the Dhamma has a precursor to this. In MN 19 (the sutta on Two Kinds of Thought), the Buddha said

Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination. If they often think about and consider sensual thoughts, they’ve given up the thought of renunciation to cultivate sensual thought. Their mind inclines to sensual thoughts. If they often think about and consider malicious thoughts … their mind inclines to malicious thoughts. If they often think about and consider cruel thoughts … their mind inclines to cruel thoughts. 

Whatever is one’s inclination of heart, then frequently translates into one’s actions. 

This phenomenon that the Buddha outlined above (“whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination”) also applies between people, especially between bosses and subordinates. 

If a boss focuses on a subordinate’s weaknesses, the subordinate will become less confident, and will also lose motivation; this will affect the quality and quantity of the work, which in turn increases the scrutiny of the boss, leading to a downward spiral

In contrast, a boss who focuses on a subordinate’s strengths leads to greater confidence, and greater motivation; improving the quality and quantity of work, which in turn draws more praise, leading to an upward spiral.

This isn’t to say that one should be all fluffy and ‘THINK POSITIVE!’ like Uni-Kitty from the Lego Movie. 

Instead, it is about what one chooses to focus on & elaborate on in a colleague, and what one chooses to ignore or let go of. 

Remember, the Dhamma is about understanding reality as it actually is, not about remaining deluded. 

The Boss who did everything wrong…according to me 

I had a boss whom I initially found fault with, until one day my wife tired of my complaining and said to me “aren’t you just finding fault with your boss??” 

That caused me to pause, and I realised my wife (as usual) was right! So I resolved to deliberately pay attention to this boss, with a deliberate focus on what I truly admired about my former boss. 

Eventually, I realised that I really admired this boss’ humility: she never thought about her position and was unabashed to reach out to learn and ask questions if she felt someone had something to teach her. 

And I also admired her thoroughness of preparation, which, er, complements my weakness in that regard… 

Paying attention to my boss’ strengths enabled me to figure out how I could better work with her: how could my strengths bolster or complement her strengths? 

How could we find someone else in the team to make up for our weaknesses? By paying attention to one’s strengths instead of faultfinding, we became better together as a team

But how do we give critical feedback?

UniKitty in the Lego Movie is a classic example of delusional positive thinking. Piercing delusion requires us to give feedback to each other (which is what the Buddhist Sangha also does, as you can see from the Vinaya). 

So how could we give feedback, especially critical feedback, while still being in line with Buddhist principles, and while also not causing conflict? 

The sutta on non-conflict (MN 139) has three criteria for giving critical feedback (“sharp words”): 

When you know that your sharp words in someone’s presence are true and correct, and beneficial, then you should know the right time to speak. ‘Don’t talk behind people’s backs, and don’t speak sharply in their presence.’ 

Aranavibhanga sutta (analysis of non-conflict) MN 139 

The three criteria are:

1. True & correct (I.e. no lies nor disinformation). This is self-evident. 

See also  Ep 29: What does it mean to be vulnerable? ft Anthea Ong, former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Singapore

2. Beneficial (i.e. it is of benefit to the person you’re saying it to).
E.g. saying to someone “your face is ugly because you have a huge mole” might be true, but I cannot imagine any context where this benefits the person you’re saying it to! 

3. Right timing. Timing makes a very big difference. For e.g., my wife and I noticed one time that we were having frequent fights just before lunchtime. That helped us to avoid a number of future fights because we then decided to postpone our discussions: amazingly, that removed a lot of the grumpiness which easily escalates into pointless big arguments. 

The exact same three criteria are absolutely relevant when you’re giving critical feedback at work, whether it is to a boss, peer or subordinate. 

The four types of people to be careful of offending

The more I read the suttas, the more I find it amazing that there are a lot of lessons that are applicable in corporate life. For example, this sutta provides great advice on four types of people to be careful of offending at the workplace: 

“A man should not despise an aristocrat of impeccable lineage, high-born and famous, just because they’re young

For it’s possible that that lord of men, as aristocrat, will gain the throne. And in his anger he’ll execute a royal punishment, and have you violently beaten….

…With its rainbow of colours, the snake of fiery breath glides along. It lashes out and bites the fool, both men and women alike. 

…A fire devours a huge amount, a conflagration with a blackened trail. A man should not look down on it just because it’s young. 

For once it gets the fuel it’ll become a huge conflagration. It’ll lash out and burn the fool, 

…if a mendicant endowed with ethics burn you with their power, you’ll have no sons or cattle, nor will your heirs find wealth. 

A prince, a snake, a fire, a monastic SN 3.1

On the surface, this advice might seem archaic, quaint and irrelevant. 

But if you consider a “young aristocrat” as one of those “high potential” people, earmarked for higher things in the company, a “snake” as one of those secretly extremely envious and jealous people you encounter in work life, a “fire” as one of the gossip-kings/queens who cannot keep anything to themselves but who deliberately over-share information with everyone, and a mendicant as one of those work-life saints, it suddenly becomes extremely relevant: 

– You’ve to be careful not to offend a “young aristocrat” who in future might become your boss.

– “snakes” need to be treated with caution, as they might bite you in the back when you’re not careful.

– “fires” need to be avoided: don’t feed them fuel (i.e. secrets) otherwise your secrets will spread like wildfire if you pissed them off. 

– You’ve to be careful not to accidentally offend the “mendicants”, as the karma of doing them wrong is going to blow back hard on you. 

Hence, knowing the people to be careful of, we can apply our effort into associating with the wise folks in the office and avoid the pitfalls of getting into the bad side of these individuals.

Wise Steps:

  • Work can increase your sense of ego and self. Are you showing any symptoms of an increased sense of self from work? 
  • Choose your perceptions, to trigger positive virtuous cycles. Find areas you admire about the people you work with, especially if you find yourself disliking someone. What is one thing you really admire about them? 
  • Guard our speech: is it true, beneficial, and at the right timing?
  • Recognise the four types of people whom to be careful of at the workplace. Who is the “prince”, a “snake”, a “fire” and a “mendicant” in your workplace?

Author: PJ Teh

PJ Teh discovered Buddhism while procrastinating as a student, and later discovered Ajahn Brahm and the Suttas in a 2010 Chiang Rai Retreat. He procrastinated on the spiritual path through various roles with the Singapore EDB, including industry development and strategic planning. He is taking his time working towards being a no-body.

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