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!
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?
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 appliesbetween 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 anupward 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.
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.
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?
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 think about, in this mini-article series.
TLDR: We spend more than a quarter of our adult lives at the workplace. Knowing how to choose your workplace can either build or destroy your character. Choosing the right people, and culture, and asking the right questions is crucial!
Principles in the financial world and the Dhamma
The term Dharma/dhamma is something that brings up the mental image of a Californian long-haired hippy with incense and drugs, spouting free-love, with flowers in their hair.
In reality, the term Dhamma is simply a set of conditionality or principles: this can be seen from how they are described, which are usually sets of conditionality i.e. if A happens, that allows B to happen, etc.
So that is why in my mind, “Applying Buddhist Principles at Work” is the same thing as “Applying the Dhamma at Work”.
Ray Dalio, a famous hedge-fund manager, who wrote a best-selling book “Principles” gives us further insight into the workplace. His book is about the principles he used to grow Bridgewater Associates into one of the largest funds in the world: that is a kind of Dhamma for hedge funds (and decision-making), with many overlaps with Buddhist Dhamma.
Instead of ‘lazily’ applying the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths, I’m taking a first-principles approach to the Dhamma at Work, but without necessarily being MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive). These are decisions and actions that anybody probably needs to act on, at work.
These are my personal views on the matter, so please feel free to look at it differently. 🙂
I should also caveat that these Buddhist principles might not make you rich or conventionally successful. But you will probably sleep well at night, and probably suffer a lot less, and be happier!
The following decisions need to be made by anybody with regard to any workplace.:
Choosing a workplace
How to look at issues and matters, and how to decide
How to treat people at the workplace
How to conduct oneself
This article will cover ‘Choosing a workplace’ with subsequent articles covering the other areas.
Choosing the place where you spend a quarter of your adult work life
A workplace is an environment where your mind will be in, for a substantial amount of your life.
A week has 168 hours: a typical work week takes up anywhere from 42 to 120 of those hours, which is 25% or more of your total time. That’s where your mind will be at.
What happens at work also spills over to the rest of your life, shaping your mental state for your week. Hence, I think choosing a workplace is perhaps the most important decision to make.
So how should we choose a workplace? I have a few factors to consider.
1. Choosing the people
The first factor to decide about a workplace is the people you’re going to be working with. You become the people around you.
This was so important, that Ananda (who was the Buddha’s personal attendant) was rebuked by the Buddha for saying that the good friendship was only half the Holy Life:
When a bhikkhu (monastic) has a good friend, a good companion, and a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.
The same consideration applies to choosing our colleagues.
Why is it so important to choose your colleagues carefully? This is because of anatta, or non-self: if there truly is a self that was fully in control, then the environment wouldn’t impact any individual.
But precisely because anatta or non-self is true, we humans are influenced easily by the people and environment around us.
Choosing the workplace, especially choosing the people you work with thus helps shape our own minds and conditions.
2. How do I know if the culture is right for me?
Related to this, is whether the culture of the team and workplace you’re joining is a good or bad culture. How do you know if it’s good or bad? And good or bad, with reference to what?
Choose a workplace culture with reference to your state of mind, and your progress on the Eightfold Path.
If you go to a workplace and you end up having a lot of strong desires, that’s probably not good.
Nothing below a five-star hotel
When I was working with a previous employer in finance, an ex-boss said to me “You know, PJ, I can never stay in a hotel less than five stars, and on a plane less than business class.”
I was horrified and asked why. She said, “because I am so used to this, that anything less is really uncomfortable.”
It was suffering for her, basically, because the financial industry had norms that were extremely expensive. And that’s when I realised that the industry was Super Samsara!
That’s when I decided I had to leave because I also noticed that many of my colleagues and peers were not happy, not very healthy, and used their high pay to “buy happiness” outside of work, indulging in all kinds of expensive things.
The layoffs happened
When we were laid off due to the financial crisis, I heard an ex-colleague had cash for only half a month’s worth of rent in her bank account, because she had spent all her income on spa packages, pedicure packages, gym packages, branded clothes, bags, drinks, expensive dinners, etc.
So she was desperate to get another high-paying job as a banker, even though the market was flooded with retrenched bankers.
My own state of mind back then was extremely unhealthy: strong desires, bad-tempered, and lacking sleep (I was working 90-120 hours a week).
Even though it has taken ten years to get back to the base-level salary I earned in the investment bank, I still think it was the right decision to leave (or rather, to get laid off).
The Buddha gave this advice on how to choose a place for a monastic:
Buddha: Take another case of a mendicant who lives close by a jungle thicket. As they do so, their mindfulness becomes established, their mind becomes immersed in samādhi, their defilements come to an end, and they arrive at the supreme sanctuary. But the necessities of life that a renunciate requires—robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick—are hard to come by. That mendicant should reflect: ‘…I didn’t go forth from the lay life to homelessness for the sake of a robe, alms-food, lodgings, or medicines and supplies for the sick… they shouldn’t stay there.
This advice isn’t just for monastics but is applicable to anyone who is intent on walking the Path.
What’s perhaps most interesting is the subsequent instruction from the Buddha. When your meditation, mindfulness and practice aren’t good, due to your environment,
That mendicant should leave that jungle thicket that very time of night or day; they shouldn’t stay there.
That’s how important the Buddha placed the effect of a place on one’s mind.
Asking the human mirrors you live with at home
How should you apply this learning, if you don’t really meditate nor keep precepts?
A simple way is to ask the people who live with you: are you becoming more gentle, kinder, and compassionate? Or are you becoming more of a pain in the ass to live with?
That will tell you how your mental cultivation is going. If your workplace is causing you to be more irritable, have strong sensual desires, and crave more material things, then you’re probably in the wrong place.
And if you see that a workplace is full of people with big egos, anger, strong sensory desires and material things, those workplaces are probably the places to avoid.
Understand the impact of colleagues on your mind and choose them wisely. Which of your colleagues improve your mind, and which do not?
Check-in with the people you live with if your character has improved or worsened since you joined your firm; this is one of the best indicators of whether you chose the right place. What do they say?
Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
This month is one focused on mental health and mental well being. We often try to understand how we can support our friends. Plot twist: What if our actions are harming them instead? How can identify these signs and do better? The truth is less shocking than we think. Here’s two stories to support our journey in becoming a better support!
1. 6 Signs YOU’RE the Toxic Friend
2. What to say and not to say when supporting a friend
6 Signs YOU’RE the Toxic Friend
What’s going on here & Why we like it
Psych2go, a youtube channel focused on mental health, shares 6 signs that help us identify if we are the toxic friend we wished we wouldn’t be. We like it because we often like to think of ourselves as helping others and being kind to our friends. This video shines a light on our potential blind spots. Don’t root for their success? Enable their negative and self-destructive behaviour? These are some signs that there might be signs of toxicity. Don’t despair if you find these signs in you, it is an opportunity to grow and develop!
“Is it hard for you to say sorry? We all make mistakes…But if your response is to tell others to suck it up and not worry about it without considering how they feel, then you are doing more harm than good to your relationship”
It is tough to shine a light on our blind spots. Running through this list of signs can help us be the friend our friends need.
What to say and not to say when supporting a friend
What’s going on here & why we like it
Maggie, a therapist, shares on what are some signs of toxic positivity, why it is toxic, and what we can say to our friends that are feeling down. This provides readers with a very actionable list of things to say when stuck in a situation where we are inclined to say ‘just try to smile!’ or ‘good vibes only’. We love it for its actionability and practicality. Enjoy!
“It (toxic positivity) provides false reassurance rather than genuine empathy”
Follow and memorise some of the phrases to say if you are often stuck in knowing what to say. Ultimately, we have to also apply empathy and compassion when supporting friends. Though our words are one part of the story of helping others…knowing what to say is a helpful starting point.
TLDR: As “spiritual people” we might go through difficult events thinking we have transcended them – but actually, it may have just been spiritual bypass. To truly let something go, we must first find a way to meet ourselves and our suffering.
A phenomenon I’ve often observed within me is spiritual bypass. According to clinical psychologist John Welwood, this is the tendency to use spiritual explanations and practices to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds.
Why It’s Problematic
With spiritual bypass, we may go through something traumatic and then pick out a line of Dhamma and think, “Yeah, the Buddha said this and he’s right, so I should get over it now.”
For example, say someone close to you has passed away. Spiritual bypass in this situation may look like telling yourself that “everything is impermanent” and that “death is natural, it happens to everyone” so “I shouldn’t feel grief”.
You use the Dhamma to rationalise the grief away – but without healthily processing the emotions that naturally arise.
This is problematic because externally, it may appear like you’ve been able to transcend the suffering, completely unaffected – but you haven’t actually done the real work of processing the painful experience and unpleasant emotions that come with it.
Without properly taking the time to receive these things and truly let them go, they might stay repressed, festering away until they come back to bite you in the a** later on.
I’m Buddhist, so I Should Just Get Over It
Something that can make this tendency worse is a strong attachment to “being Buddhist”. You may hold yourself to very high standards, putting pressure on yourself to “be strong” and “get over it”, thinking you need to be unfazed by suffering.
“I am Buddhist, so I shouldn’t be angry. Instead, I should be contented.”
“I am Buddhist, so I should be beyond such petty emotions.”
“I am Buddhist, so I should be able to let go of suffering.”
From my experience, this can be a kind of conceit. It’s a deluded expectation stemming from a heavy attachment to a “Buddhist identity” – an idealism about how your practice “should” look like, instead of working with what actually arises.
You may feel guilt or aversion around the unwholesome thoughts, intentions and desires that inevitably arise. And because of the shame, you want to hide them away, from others and even from yourself.
But what happens when you don’t allow yourself to process all that?
It doesn’t just disappear. Instead, it gets buried in the heart and resurfaces later on.
In my late teens, I experienced several traumatic events and at the time, spiritually bypassed them and then left to study abroad (which was a niceee, biiig distraction).
Years later, when I returned home during the pandemic to familiar conditions with lots of quiet, idle time, many of those unresolved negative emotions and thought patterns began to resurface.
It was surprising because for the last three years I thought I was “fine” for the most part. But evidently, I had just swept things into “the basement of unawareness”. Now that they’d reappeared, it was time to clear out the basement – to finally meet myself and deal with the repressed suffering.
This was important because, as Pema Chödrön says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know”.
So, How Should We Approach Suffering?
We know that everything is impermanent. We know that everything decays and dies one day.
We often know the Dhamma very well on an intellectual level.
But if intellectual understanding was all it took to let go, then everyone would be enlightened, wouldn’t they?
How do we apply the Dhamma beyond just a conceptual level?
In Thai, one of the terms for the mind is jit jai – “mind and heart”. There’s an ambiguity in the language that likens the mind to the heart. To me, this seems to say that processing things up in the head is not enough – we must also deal with them on an emotional level.
One of my favourite authors, Yung Pueblo, says “Manage your reactions, but do not suppress your emotions.”
Certainly, if there is, say, anger in the heart, we should take care to ensure that it doesn’t leak into our actions and speech in a way that harms ourselves and others. We might have to suppress it for that little while, but then we should make sure to process it healthily later on – this is necessary so that it can really be let go of.
Of course, this sounds straightforward in theory, but it takes a lot of skill to acknowledge these emotions without indulging in or avoiding them.
One way I practice receiving negative emotion is by being mindful of how it feels in the body. Focusing on how anger physically feels and changes helps me to receive it without indulging in it or denying it. However, I find this difficult to do for certain emotions (e.g. depression, which tends to lure you in and make you want to wallow in it), if I have a strong attachment to the issue at hand, or if my mindfulness is weak at that time.
Apart from mindfulness, the Buddha recommends five ways to remove distracting thoughts, which you can read about here. What works for you may depend on your temperament.
Letting Go of Repressed Dukkha
A process I find effective for dealing with old negative emotions is this:
1. Returning to familiar conditions in which the trauma took place can cause these old emotions to resurface. So if a situation is too triggering, remove yourself from it to prevent unwholesome speech and action.
3. When you’re calm enough, receive the emotion. Let yourself feel all of it. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to vent, do it with a trustworthy friend. I remember a story by Ajahn Sumedho, who had so much aversion towards a particular visitor to the monastery that he sat down one day and just began writing out all his anger –completely unfiltered, not trying to be nice or reasonable or “a good monk” – until there was none left. This is acceptance and release.
4. I find that receiving the emotion comes hand-in-hand with developing insight around it. When your mind is calm enough to look at the situation, you may develop new perspectives and understandings. These “paradigm shifts” are the real good stuff that helps to create lasting “liberation” from the issue. Bit by bit, they help you make sense of the experience and let go of it.
For me, this process usually takes place over a few days. You may also find that you have to go through it multiple times. That’s because, after some time, these habitual mindsets that we carry can become cemented in the psyche, becoming our “default mode”. Reframing these thoughts can thus be very challenging – so don’t be afraid to even seek guidance from a therapist.
To quote Yung Pueblo again, “If the pain was deep, you will have to let it go many times… Letting go is not a one-time event, it is a habit that requires constant repetition to become strong. Sometimes the reaction to the pain is so deep that you will have to observe and release the tension repeatedly to fully cleanse the wound.”
With each cycle, you might find that you let go a little bit more.
If you realise that something within your heart is unresolved, the first step is to let it come to the surface. Practice loving-acceptance.
Recognise your triggers and set boundaries for yourself. If certain situations are too much to handle, remove yourself from them. When you feel stronger, you may test the waters further in the future – but for now, protect your mind.
Having to deal with old trauma may feel like you’re regressing, but it is actually progress. Be patient and kind with yourself throughout this (often painful but rewarding) process.