If we can deeply understand the power of mind, how we can both injure and benefit this world, we see that practice isn’t a luxury, but rather an imperative. It’s like food and water. It returns us to ourselves, to our sanity, to our true capacity.

~ Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei

Given the current economic and political climate infused with scandals it is a good time to reassess how ethics is being taught and practiced.  “Many unethical decisions stem from a lack of awareness” (Ruedy and Schweitzer 2010). Since mindfulness, which is becoming increasingly popular in organizational development, cultivates awareness, can mindfulness promote ethical behavior in organizations? This question is the focus of this post.

Business students have consistently reported the highest levels of cheating among their peers in college (McCabe and Trevino, 1995; McCabe, Butterfield and Trevino 2006). Furthermore, finance students score the worst on narcissism and empathy, two traits that contribute to unethical decision-making (Sautter, Brown, Littvay & Sautter, 2008). Ethics is taught in business schools but has not been very effective in creating more ethical business students and professionals (Lampe and Engleman-Lampe 2012). In this post I clarify three ways in which mindfulness training can assist in developing an ethical mindset. However, I also clarify what is needed for mindfulness to be successful in promoting ethical behavior.

What is mindfulness again?

But first, just so we are all on the same page let’s look at what mindfulness means. Contrary to the belief of many people (like this opinion piece in NY Times) that mindfulness means living in the present moment, mindfulness is a meta-awareness that allows us to choose if we want to be present or allow our minds to wander. Mindfulness is an awareness of our inner and outer world that gives us the opportunity to choose our responses rather than react on autopilot. In order to cultivate an awareness of the workings of the mind, it is essential to first stabilize the mind so one can observe its contents. Once attention is stabilized, practitioners open their awareness to cultivate insight into the true nature of their experience while maintaining compassion for themselves and others. You can find more information on what mindfulness is and what it is not in my other blog post.

Mindfulness: An Antidote To Unethical Behavior

Many causes of unethical behavior, including self-serving cognitions and unconscious biases, are due to a lack of attention and awareness of how our minds work (Ruedy and Schweitzer 2010). The common approaches used to teach ethics to business students include exposure to philosophy, case studies and moral dilemmas. What is commonly left out is how to cultivate attention and awareness of our conditioned minds and its impact on our decisions. This is where mindfulness can help and the research findings on the relationship between mindfulness and ethical decisions have been promising (Ruedy and Schweitzer 2010). Mindfulness can train people to observe their minds and habitual patterns of reactivity. People can cultivate a compassionate approach of inquiry in response to difficult situations instead of avoiding them or responding in ways that are self-serving. There are three specific ways that mindfulness can help develop an ethical mindset.

I. Attention: Taming The Mind

Even as you are reading this, your mind is probably jumping between thoughts from the past and what’s next. Increasing demands on our time and the proliferation of technology has compromised our ability to pay attention. Taming the mind to be present on demand is the first step in cultivating an ethical mindset. In order to make an ethical decision, one has to first be aware that there are ethical issues involved. Executives running at hundred miles an hour are unlikely to see the ethical issues and think through the consequences of their actions. The Good Samaritans study illustrates that people in a hurry are less likely to help others. People’s cognitive abilities narrow down when they are hurrying through the day.

Mindfulness training enhances our ability to pay attention despite the distractions. Furthermore, people trained in mindfulness use less brain resources as demonstrated in the study involving attentional blink testing (Slagter et al 2007).

II. Meta-Awareness: Observation of Habitual Thinking and Emotional Response

It’s not enough to notice the situation. We also need to note our minds’ response to that situation. In the absence of awareness we allow our unconscious minds to make decisions in favor of what is most comfortable, familiar or efficient. In the book, The Ethical Executive, the story of Ford’s field recall coordinator failure to recall the Pinto, a defective car is explained by the Ford employee:

“My own schematized (scripted) knowledge influenced me to perceive recall issues in terms of the prevailing decision environment and to unconsciously overlook key features of the Pinto case, mainly because they did not fit an existing script.”

Schemas help us organize vast amounts of information for efficient decision making. Especially when we are rushed we use schemas to make quick decisions. The problem is when we see new situations from the lens of old schemas we may miss the new information as in the Ford case above. The second problem is that these schemas become second nature and we are not aware how they are influencing our judgments. In The Ethical Executive, the authors highlight forty-five social-psychological traps that are impulses that motivate us to act. Often these impulses are so powerful or automatic that we act on them without being aware of other options. In the absence of awareness these impulses including those to promote self interest, compete, and strive to meet unrealistic goals can compromise our ability to see with clarity and act with integrity. Mindfulness training makes us aware of our habitual patterns and impulses, thereby allowing us to entertain other possibilities in moments of ethical crisis.

III. Emotional Regulation: Working with difficult emotions

In my experience, especially in corporate settings, one of the biggest benefits of mindfulness is developing the ability to work with difficult emotions. Rather than suppressing, denying or reacting to the emotional content, people learn to engage with their difficult emotions in a new way – with compassion and curiosity. This creates cognitive flexibility to entertain new perspectives and solutions. Mindfulness develops the ability to notice our self-talk and emotions in response to the triggers without buying into them nor suppressing them. In creating space around the decision we can recognize our intentions, our habitual patterns and question the assumptions and beliefs we bring to that situation.

A Cookie-Cutter Approach to Mindfulness Will Not Work

If indeed mindfulness promises to develop an ethical mindset and there is growing research to support that claim, why are businesses offering mindfulness to employees continuing to engage in unethical behaviors? There can be many reasons for that. For example, the people getting the training may be different from those making the unethical decisions. It would also depend upon the quality of training and the curriculum created for the organization. As a mindfulness teacher and researcher I would like to emphasize that a cookie-cutter approach to teaching mindfulness for ethical development is not going to result in developing an ethical mindset. Many current programs are offshoots of the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, which was successful in reducing stress among many other health benefits. However, this is not necessarily going to result in developing ethical behaviors among business professionals. There are two specific reasons for mindfulness not automatically translating into ethical behaviors – lack of intention and integration.

The intention of people coming to a mindfulness program determines what they get out of it. So if people practice mindfulness for stress-management, they will learn to relieve themselves of stress, which might also help them to make better decisions. But it is not always clear if these decisions are merely better for their bottom line or for all their stakeholders. The story of Bob Stiller, founder of Green Mountain Coffee, described in Mindful Work, is an example of a mindfulness practitioner who in pursuit of a materialistic lifestyle ends up causing harm to himself, his family and colleagues. So mindfulness doesn’t naturally and always translate into moral behavior.

The other difficulty, especially for beginners, is integrating mindfulness into their every day lives. While they can learn to be present, aware and calm during a mindfulness practice, it is not easy to carry forward this quality of awareness to all their business decisions. It is more likely that they go back to default modes of thinking and behaving, especially under conditions of stress.

The Need To Design Mindfulness-Based Ethics Programs

In the traditional Buddhist trainings, ethical conduct (sila) is the foundation for mindfulness training. However, in secular mindfulness trainings, ethics is not a focus of the training, which is why we end up with inconsistent results as they pertain to practitioners’ ethical behaviors. If we indeed want business students and professionals to develop an ethical mindset, then we have to move away from cookie-cutter programs that were created for different outcomes. Instead, we need  mindfulness-based ethics curricula designed and taught by people who understand mindfulness and also business challenges. These courses need to be designed to teach the mindfulness skills in the specific contexts of business using a language that is relevant to business professionals. And most importantly these mindfulness programs would make development of ethical decision making the core purpose of the program.

Secondly, these courses will give participants opportunities to apply mindfulness skills in the context of ethical dilemmas. Giving students opportunities to make decisions using a mindful framework will give them practice to integrate these skills into ethical decision making. The more they practice the more they can rewire their brains to make compassionate inquiry their default mode for decision making.

A Compassionate Inquiry Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Here is a broad framework that you can use when encountering an ethically challenging situation:

  1. Stop and breathe: When you sense discomfort in your body or feel triggered by a situation, stop and take a few breaths to calm the fight or flight mode and stabilize your attention.
  2. Observe: Observe your thought patterns, emotions and body sensations without suppressing or getting carried away by them. Create a spacious quality in your mind and body to engage in this situation with compassionate curiosity.
  3. Question: From a place of compassion for your self and others, question your assumptions and beliefs about the situation. What are you bringing to the situation – your biases, preferences, emotional reactivity? What is the other person’s perspective that you are not seeing?
  4. Intention: Check in with your intention for this situation. What would you like to get from this situation? What is the ideal outcome for you?
  5. Choice and Consequences: What is the most skillful choice you can make? Are you considering the well-being of all stakeholders involved?


What has been your experience with practicing mindfulness in decision making?

What challenges have you encountered in practicing mindfulness in situations involving ethical dilemmas?

Please leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions or would like to explore creating a mindfulness program to cultivate ethical decision making in your school or organization.