Mindfulness in the Business Context – An Academic Approach from IESEG

Fall 2019 Mindfulness Event

IESEG has a long-standing tradition of embedding social, responsibility, ethics, and sustainability. Since 2015, IESEG has worked through an ongoing collective process involving hundreds of stakeholders on their VISION 2025 Strategy. This has led to the vision to become a “unique international hub empowering changemakers for a better society”. A focus on mindfulness emerged through this process, not as a top down initiative but through an organic process that began with a learning expedition to a Buddhist monastery in southern France where professors and students discovered the art of mindful living. This has developed to become a range of both academic experiential mindfulness courses for students and practice-oriented mindfulness courses for staff. Much of this approach has been developed and led by professor Julie Bayle-Cordier at IESEG and I recently had the chance to speak to her about these programmes.

Why is mindfulness important?

While mindfulness has existed for 2500 years in the East, it is only in the past five years that scientific studies devoted to meditation in the workplace have multiplied and demonstrated the benefits of its impact on the body and brain. Companies are starting to understand that meditative practices may actually foster better performance in their work teams, decrease turnover, improve employee engagement and develop a more empowered, less fatalistic attitudes towards climate change. Some of the latest research on mindfulness is fascinating as it implies that mindful individuals may more effectively contribute to building a more sustainable society. Mindfulness and sustainability are linked, and this is where mindfulness directly connects to our Vision as a school. From a business school point of view, it makes sense to integrate mindfulness in our curriculum to prepare our students to become the responsible leaders of tomorrow.

What are some of the misconceptions you have found around mindfulness?

I am always amazed when engaging in conversations with faculty, staff or students who are not familiar with mindfulness practice and how many people have pre-conceived judgements about this practice. This is of course perfectly normal! This is particularly true in the West and in France where the body and mind have been considered as two distinct entities that may actually never need to meet! The French philosopher Descartes once wrote ‘I think therefore I am!’ and such a statement sums up the idea that the cognitive thinking brain is sufficient for a human being to function fully. Such thinking is probably deeply rooted in our collective (un)consciousness.  Yet today with recent neuroscience research we are beginning to understand that human experience may be greatly enhanced when we begin to pay attention to the breath and the body. This does not mean that with mindfulness we seek to avoid thought or to have a blank slate for a brain. What mindfulness does is allow one to focus on present moment experience and this repeated practice will actually connect different parts of our brain to create what Harvard trained psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls the capacity for ‘mindsight’ or an ‘integrated brain’.

How should schools approach mindfulness?

Firstly, mindfulness is not an esoteric practice. It can be introduced in the business school setting as a secular practice to foster a set of skills that will develop concrete competences such as stress reduction, enhanced ability to focus, better decision-making, emotional regulation, capacity for enhanced compassion, better relationships and more aptitude for creativity. Some of the latest studies even show that mindfulness may lead to less fatalistic attitudes and a greater sensitivity towards climate change and environmental issues! The second thing to consider is to be careful how the practice is introduced in the business school setting. While Mindfulness has clear performance benefits as it fosters many competences, it is limiting to view it as just another business tool. The analogy can be made with corporate social responsibility whereby a narrow view of CSR is purely instrumental and ‘business case’ and a broader more ethical and authentic view has transformational potential. For instance, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s didn’t become the cutting-edge social icon because its leaders saw the performance benefits of putting their values in their value chain. Ben & Jerry’s became cutting-edge because the founders and employees who were part of the initial community put their full hearts and authenticity into their business. Later the B-Corp community got involved and were able to certify the authenticity of this social and environmental commitment and this is also important.

In much the same way, Mindfulness is much more than a tool and when a broader ethical view of Mindfulness is taken, such a view can open up many possibilities for transformations to occur at the individual and organizational level.

How is mindfulness included in the curriculum?

Since Spring 2017, IÉSEG has offered an elective 2 ECTS course ‘Mindfulness and Management’ for Masters students in the Grande Ecole programme on both our Lille and Paris campus. This 16-hour introductory course is conceived as a four-day immersion journey into mindfulness practice for business school students and future managers. I developed this course integrating mindfulness practice and experiential learning inspired by the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) methodology developed by John Kabat-Zinn (Umass Medical School) and based on the latest research about mindfulness in the corporate setting. The course also addresses the challenges of integrating mindfulness in the corporate context. Student appreciations for this course are extremely high. Given the success of this elective for our Grande Ecole students, this elective was introduced to our International MBA students in the spring of 2019 also through an intensive four-day format. During the Spring of 2020 because of the COVID situation, the course was offered online over a period of 5 weeks to our International MBA students.

What other opportunities do students have students to engage in mindfulness?

During the Spring 2020, when we were all confined at home in France, IESEG launched an ‘IESEG CARES’ initiative with multiple online resources for both students and staff to cope with the challenging period of the COVID. One of these initiatives was to offer students a weekly one-hour online mindfulness session where they could come together as a student community. Also, in the fall of 2019, during the first annual Student Awareness Week organized by IESEG’s student associations, we were able to facilitate introduction to mindfulness practice sessions for students on both our Lille and Paris campus.

What about with staff?

Since 2018, IESEG has offered introduction to mindfulness classes to staff on both campuses. The format of the course is 90 minutes during lunchtime and offered over a period of 6 weeks. Since 2018, over 100 participants (both staff and professors) have taken part in these introductory mindfulness sessions. The feedback for the class has been very good. Several participants noted the positive effects it has had on their work and in their working relationships. In the Spring of 2020, IESEG had planned for the full MBSR programme to be offered free of charge to staff on the Paris campus over a period of 8 weeks but due to the COVID situation we unfortunately had to postpone the course to the first semester of 2021.The full MBSR programme will entail 27 hours of training and will be offered in the evenings free of charge.

What have been some of the challenges of introducing mindfulness into the business school and how have you approached these?

In terms of introducing mindfulness in the business education, this is indeed a challenge and a lot of pedagogy needs to be put in place for as explained above, many people still have misconceptions about the practice. The idea is to encourage and nudge people to try the practice and give it a chance as this is far from obvious for the many of us who have grown up with a ‘rational’ education that separates mind from body.  Part of the approach has been to be pedagogical. Before actually launching the mindfulness practice sessions for staff, we organized conferences in the context of our IESEG Vision Inspiring Conferences with external speakers to discuss the topic of mindfulness in the world of work. This was an opportunity for staff and professors to debate and exchange on the topic.

What advice do you have for other schools interested in introducing similar programmes?

If a school wishes to develop mindfulness initiatives, like any change initiative, it is important that the top leadership of the school understand the relevance and then demonstrate a commitment to support such initiatives.  It is also important that the professors or staff who are interested in developing and facilitating mindfulness courses be supported in their training and aspirations. At IESEG School of Management, the dean and executive committee understood the importance of science based training that was validated by a well-regarded and established community of practice and research. The choice was to follow the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Training at the Brown School of Public Health in the United States where IESEG supported (and continues to support) my training in mindfulness.

Here at IESEG, there has been tremendous support, but it has also been a growing experiment. As participants or students express their enthusiasm, we are able to continue to invest in growing the mindfulness initiatives. The path which we have followed so far at IESEG is a mix of both academic experiential mindfulness courses for students and practice-oriented mindfulness courses for staff. But of course, there are many other possibilities!

How can each of us engage in mindfulness in our lives?

There are many ways to begin mindfulness practice. One may begin with a class or online with an app. Sustaining mindfulness practice with an app is very difficult, so my advice is always to begin with a class. But it can also be to begin very small by setting a timer for 5 minutes each day where you can just sit and watch your in and out breath. Learning to create spaciousness in our lives is already a great place to start.

There are also several good websites and apps (in addition to IESEG Cares). This includes the Mindfulness Center at Brown, the Association for the Development of Mindfulness,  this site that offers a range of guided meditations online. There are also a number of free apps including Ten Percent Happier, JKZ Series1 and Plum Village.

How have you adapted given current realities and what’s next?

Some of our mindfulness courses went online recently. The plan for 2021 is to resume our mindfulness offer on campus as the shared ‘live’ community building aspect of these types of courses is too important to neglect. Nothing quite replaces the sense of community and shared space that emerges from the dynamics in a live classroom. The next step is to continue to formalize and further integrate our mindfulness initiatives at IESEG. One of the ideas is to embed some mindfulness practices in some of the mandatory leadership courses.

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