Embracing Mindfulness in the Banking Industry

There’s a trend floating in the financial services industry that everyone seems to want to keep quiet. They’re not sweeping secrets under the rug, but neither are they rushing to talk about it. The industry is embracing mindfulness. Despite all the good connotations this evokes, the financial services industry would prefer that not even the industry talk too loudly among itself.

The fact is while no one’s swinging their arms in the air to brag, some 10,000 members of the financial district engage in some form of mindfulness. Many are attending regular meditation sessions and those numbers are increasing dramatically. Only the industry isn’t sure what the idea of mindfulness means or what its long term impact on the industry could end up being.

Recently, there was a relatively quiet meeting in the London financial center attended by some of the city’s bigwigs, including a number of prominent executives and board members, an ex-chairman of a major blue chip enterprise, a Buddhist software engineer, a former senior banker, a Benedictine monk and over 50 others. Participants that were named included founder of Pimco, Bill Gross, and Lord Myners, a figure in the reform of the UK’s Co-perative Group governance. How does a major group like this come together in the middle of the work week with so little fanfare?

 

Well, this gathering isn’t about a major financial move. Chade-Meng Tan, a people development expert who works at Google, is addressing the soft spoken group about the benefits of mindfulness and its relationship to compassionate leadership. Both Myners and Gross have talked publicly about how meditation clears the mind, making it easier to set priorities. Still, no one’s sitting akimbo with a daisy in each hand. High finance remains a well of corporate conservatism. Even the most enlightened are concerned about reaction to such thinking and practice. Decades ago, a similar circumstance in how physical exercise impacted executive performance created an unwanted stir. Management was being chided for not getting regular medical check-ups under the argument that “generally” [they] “have a better-than-average bill of health – or else they would not get to the top.”

Unfortunately, this generous news was countered by a high number of CEOs having fatal heart attacks and strokes. Curiously, the fatalities didn’t affect corporate thinking so much as what the public and shareholders would think about fitness and corporate health affecting their investments. At the time, management wanted to avoid the very idea of linking fitness to success. Just as modern day executives don’t want to associate it with mindfulness.

Mindfulness and meditation have substantiated records showing they alleviate depression and anxiety – a big problem in the financial services sector – but no one wants quirky thinking or new agey trends dictating how anyone should conduct themselves. Finance still proudly boasts a 1950s’ thinking of success. In one article from the period, that thinking being success was “a tribute to” [executives’] “constitutions and physical and mental make-up,” not any single element or trend.

So, with the idea of mindfulness growing amid secrecy, how does the industry prepare for the day it goes beyond their quiet meetings, especially with something like spiritual mediation sounding a lot more out there than a physical fitness program? It will probably be a grassroots revelation that would eventually be endorsed by senior management, as long as it can be established among shareholders and the public that mindfulness does not make bankers better performers.

 

Author: K. Michael Williams

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