Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

White Collar Zen: Using Zen Principles to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Your Career Goals

Employing Zen methods to improve relationships at work.
6/6/2005

There is a trend in management books to borrow concepts, models, and ideas from other disciplines. It's not surprising, then, to find a recent book on applying Zen philosophy to career development. In White Collar Zen, Steven Heine, professor of religious studies and history and director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida International University, describes a somewhat convincing if slightly simplistic way to apply Zen philosophy to personal career success.

Heine emphasizes in his introduction that the book is not "about Zen" but rather "from Zen." Therefore, readers should not expect historical interpretations of the philosophy nor an explanation of how to meditate. Instead, Heine's aim is to employ Zen ideals and methods to improve relationships in the workplace.

Heine has organized the book into three sections. In the first part, Mountains Are Mountains: Roots of Everyday Stress, he describes how Zen principles can enhance the development of professional leadership as well as motivational and management skills. He introduces the Zen metaphor of the Warrior and the Hermit, which he refers to subsequently throughout the book. This metaphor presents two apparently contradictory paths but, Heine writes, mastering both styles will prepare readers for challenges that arise from virtually any situation. The Way of the Hermit emphasizes mental clarity and the ability to gain a dispassionate and impartial perspective on situations. This approach allows one to determine allies and competitors in the workplace as well as to envision what is possible and what is not. The Way of the Warrior focuses on developing the capability to act decisively at the right moment.

The second part, Mountains Are Not Mountains: Transforming Conflict into Opportunity, introduces the Buddhist concept of absence and presence, both of which contribute to personal anxiety: absence, grasping for what cannot be attained; and presence, pushing away what is not desirable. Heine illustrates this idea with relevant examples such as dealing with the disappointment of losing a promotion (as an application of absence) and coping with an unwanted or burdensome assignment (as an application of presence).

The final part, Mountains Are Mountains: From Structure to Anti-Structure, focuses on when and how lessons of Zen dialogues may be applied to transform "a situation of competition from a Confrontation that is one-dimensional and static to an Encounter that is multifunctional and fluid." In the end, Heine should be commended for his attempt at making Zen philosophy accessible and relevant to readers unfamiliar with the topic; however, it often seems as if depth has been sacrificed for the sake of simplicity and clarity.