Mindfulness, pranayam can help managers get more ethical

Mumbai: Corporate debacles in recent history — Satyam, WorldCom and Enron — inspired a team of researchers from IIT Bombay and IIM Ahmedabad to crack the code on how to reduce cheating, deception and misconduct in organisations: improve 'moral reasoning' among managers.

At the end of a three-year study, they found that enhancing mindfulness practices among managers and students improves what developmental psychologists call moral reasoning – a thought process that determines if an idea is right or wrong; a link to ethical behaviour. Mindfulness, in Eastern philosophical traditions, refers to an objective awareness of the inner experience and outward actions.

This is the first study of its kind in the psychology and management world and was recently published in the journal, ‘Business Ethics: European Review’, according to an IIT statement. A team of three researchers — Ashish Pandey, Assistant Professor and Ajinkya Navare, PhD scholar in IIT Bombay, and Rajesh Chandwani, faculty at IIM Ahmedabad — examined the role of mindfulness in enhancing moral reasoning through a survey and experiment involving over 400 management students with average work experience of three years.

Meditation, the study found, helps increase the level of mindfulness and compassion and decreases the 'ego-centric bias' [the tendency to interpret things for self-benefit and gratification; the 'me-first' attitude]. Mindful business leaders will not only defend their actions based on legal compliance but face business challenges and dilemmas while being inspired by values such as compassion and goodness.

Ashish Pandey, faculty member in the Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management in IIT Bombay and lead researcher, said the study could have an implication on the moral development of management students and executives and the way ethics courses are taught in educational institutions.

The starting point for the research, he said, was the spate of corporate scandals, which involved falsification of accounts, swindling and corruption, "with expertise in cutting corners, not following processes, cheating and making excuses.” A later study (Gino, 2015) showed widespread cheating, deception, organisational misconduct, and unethical

behaviour were rampant at a smaller level in organisations. “The question was, are we, as educational professionals, providing sufficient inputs on values and ethics, along with management techniques?”

For the past few years, Mr. Pandey has been looking at how traditional wisdom can be examined scientifically. When people indulge in 'reflective practices' like mindfulness meditation, he says,they can see what they are doing. “It creates a margin between impulse and how they act. It's called distancing – you develop a tendency to look at an event as a witness; it happens in a fraction of a second.” The natural result of distancing is a decrease in the ego-centric bias. “You also become a little more available to others psychologically, and the natural result is compassion.”

The me-first schema, he says, operates in two ways: avoid harm, and do what benefits me. “Mindfulness decreases that. The availability of mental resources heightens if we get into mindfulness practice. We become a little more available to others psychologically; a natural response is compassion.” We are spurred to not just empathise, but to do something about it.

In the first study, the team conducted a survey to test their hypothesis about the positive association between mindfulness and moral reasoning. In the second study, they conducted an experiment to examine the impact of interventions on the traits of mindfulness, egotism, compassion and moral reasoning.

The hypothesis was that mindfulness training and practice for eight weeks would result in improved mindfulness and moral reasoning.

A good part of the study involved teaching first-year management students Pranayam and mindfulness practices. After eight weeks, the tests were repeated. “There was a shift within a week. Pre-assessment scores on moral reasoning for the experimental and control groups were 211 and 213 out of 600; post-assessment, they were at 248 and 216 respectively,” he said. The techniques also have the potential to improve students' engagement levels, which are currently low.

Dr. Rajesh Chandwani, Chairperson, Centre for Management of Health Services at IIM Ahmedabad and co-author of the research paper, was keen on understanding the correlation between unethical behaviour, stress and physical illness. Dr. Chandwani was a paediatrician for 13 years before he switched to an academic career.

The results, he said, highlighted the process by which decisions were made, even when the goal was the same – bring in profit. “Have I been compassionate, or ego-centric in taking my decisions? For instance, when I import young talent from small towns in my organisation, do I think about their social networks or their working hours?”

The thinking extends to corporate social responsibility, designing work processes, expansion strategies and R&D spending, he said. As much as it does to day-to-day living. “Every decision presents an ethical dimension and dilemma. How do you reason it out? Are you considering perspectives more compassionately?”

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2022 10:38:20 am |