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

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

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? 

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. 

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 https://suttacentral.net/sn3.1/en/sujato

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?
Good Friday Reminds Us Virtues are Heroic Acts

Good Friday Reminds Us Virtues are Heroic Acts

TLDR: Good Friday is a time to contemplate more deeply the teachings left to us by Jesus Christ. We look at the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism in the practice of virtues. 

The author is a practising Buddhist who also finds many aspects of the teachings of Jesus Christ inspiring. She writes this article based on her understanding of the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity that does not necessarily reflect the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha. She hopes readers can read with wise discernment.

Good Friday is a time where all Christians observe fasting, penance and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. To me (as a Buddhist), Jesus showed us how to carry our crosses (suffering). 

Remembering the iconic image of Christ carrying his cross during difficult times can help soothe one’s heart. Unlike the majority of us, he did not get rid of suffering through impatience or aversion. With great faith, he showed us it is possible to face suffering with forgiveness, patience and love. To me, this is one of the reasons he is so deeply revered. 

Similarly, the Buddha taught us about suffering. He taught us what suffering is, the cause of suffering and how to cease suffering. Patience is a virtue to be cultivated in Buddhism so that we may endure suffering and let it go every time it comes up.

In this post, I would like to celebrate the spirit of Good Friday with the teachings of Christ that have inspired many people in the world. 

Perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous teachings on virtue is that of giving and loving our neighbours as we would love ourselves. The Buddha too taught this in the practice of loving-kindness meditation, where we cultivate a love for ourselves and share it with all beings

The teaching of virtues

Another parallel between Christianity and Buddhism is that Jesus too, taught morality as the Buddha did. Morality helps us cultivate virtues (such as patience, joy, forgiveness and love) in our hearts. 

In one episode of his life, Christ was criticised by the Pharisees for breaking the ancient fathers’ ceremonial tradition of washing hands before eating. 

Jesus replied that whatever enters into a man from the outside (food) cannot defile him because they do not enter the heart but into his stomach and out into the sewer. 

But what comes out of a man’s heart defiles a man. From the hearts of men come evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, envy, pride and foolishness. 

Jesus was pointing to us that the crucial thing is to cultivate goodness in our hearts instead of placing our attention on rites and rituals only.

Due to the evil that can emerge from the hearts of men, Jesus taught those who listened not to commit murder, steal, adultery, lie or swear. He encouraged us to love, instead of hate our enemies. 

Similarly, the Buddha taught lay Buddhists not to kill, steal, lie, commit adultery, and not to dull our faculties with intoxicants. It seems to me (personal opinion) that these two great teachers are teaching the laws of nature that apply to everyone, regardless of religion.

Although these moral precepts seem easy on the surface to follow, they are not. We often see the faults in others instead of our faults. One of the famous quotes from Christ, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” 

Easier to see others’ faults than our own

Jesus was right to say we are eager to see the trivial faults in others while ignoring our massive shortcomings. We often jump to hasty judgments based on our projections. 

Recently, my sister told me that she is cutting down to two meals a day to lose weight. But she still drank protein to stave off hunger. I asked her why she was consuming protein shakes as I thought it is for vegans and those who are weightlifting. She said protein shakes contain 200 calories as opposed to 500 calories from a meal.

I told her that’s still three meals a day and commented that I too took two meals a day but without any meal replacement. She quickly jumped to a conclusion and said, “This is not a competition.” I was surprised as I did not make the comment to compete but rather to clarify that two meals a day meant no meal replacements (if she wanted to lose weight). 

I cannot say that I have not projected my habitual thoughts onto others.

I often make baseless assumptions and have annoyed many people. One of the many assumptions I make is that no one ever listens to what I say and I also assume I know what others are thinking. 

The list of prideful assumptions I make about others is too long to mention here.

Often, we enjoy judging whether others are keeping their morality well instead of perfecting our virtues. Doing this grows our pride instead of virtue.

Human laws do not necessarily follow nature

We look for ways to benefit ourselves in this world and are often encouraged by others. In a recent conversation, a friend said that it is not wrong if she were to take money from the ATM if the person before her forgets to take the money. 

In her view, she is not stealing but merely taking. I would have agreed with her in the past. As a practising Buddhist today, I told her that is stealing because she is aware of taking another’s possession.

I have understood adhering to the precepts as laid out by the Buddha and Christ is for our well-being. It is because natural laws exist and we are not doing it to please the founders of religions. 

Ayya Khema, a late prominent German Buddhist nun asked her students, “What is natural?” She said we often look for natural and organic food. But aren’t we a part of nature as well? We cannot escape the natural laws of birth, decay and death. 

Emotionally, we are also constrained by nature’s laws because when we become extreme in either sadness or happiness, misery follows. We understand that sadness can become depression. Extreme happiness can also bring on a heart attack.

We often praise the intelligence of someone who can lie to get what s/he wants. We are also in awe when someone can cheat the system as featured in movies like Ocean Eleven to self-righteous murders in numerous superhero films. 

Virtues are heroic acts

We admire heroes who save the world. But if we were to closely examine popular violent/action films, to the number of wars fought in our history, the heroes are as responsible as the villains for causing calamities. 

Growing virtues in our hearts is an act of self-denial as opposed to self-aggrandisation. We are always looking for opportunities to grow our pride by increasing our education, wealth, network and possessions.

I am not saying it is wrong to educate or upgrade ourselves in our lives, but rather, we look outwards to grow our pride more than looking inwards to examine our hearts.

Virtues are heroic acts because we need to have the courage to deny the unskillful qualities in our hearts. 

For example, someone who is impatient seldom thinks s/he is wrong and wants to get things done quickly their way. This can cause anger in himself/herself and in those around them.

Being impatient and self-righteous can make it hard to listen to differing opinions and not argue with another. By being patient, we can avoid arguments with another, and reduce the chances of getting angry. By taming our unvirtuous heart, we can become happier and as a result, reduce suffering for ourselves and others.

Conquering our bad habits and cultivating virtue is a heroic act because it is so hard to recognise and admit to our faults as opposed to blaming others for not accepting our views. Virtues are for our well-being and also do not cause harm to others. This is how we can love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

The purpose of developing virtues

The Buddha said that it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell to practice virtues.1 While alive, virtues can bring joy and make life easier for us. As we do not create suffering for others, they do not cause us much trouble. 

If upon death, we discover heaven and hell do exist, we are safe because having virtues in our hearts is the way to heaven. Cultivating virtues is like buying insurance for the present life and also the afterlife if we are unsure of the existence of heaven and hell.

In Christianity, the existence of heaven and hell is highly emphasised. Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal; lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, your heart will also be.”

Jesus clearly tells us virtues in the heart is a timeless treasure compared to our temporary material possessions. 

Holidays like Christmas, Good Friday and Vesak Day are not just holidays to take a break and be with loved ones but for us to remember the teachings of these two great teachers, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.

Note:

1. Sutta MN 60: “Even if we didn’t speak of the next world, and there weren’t the true statement of those venerable contemplatives & brahmans, this venerable person is still praised in the here-&-now by the observant as a person of good habits & right view”


Wise Steps :

  • We can remember the virtues of patience, forgiveness and love by recollecting Jesus carrying the cross when carrying our own crosses (suffering)
  • Before you criticise another, whether commenting on a politician, celebrity or friend, look at the speck in your eyes.
  • Spend time recollecting your heart every day. Is there anything you have said or done that has made your heart uneasy such as criticising a friend? If you can do something to unburden your heart, do it the next day. If the deed cannot be undone, forgive yourself and those around you to lighten your heart.

Help us spread more goodness to the world

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