Novartis headquarters in Basel, Switzerland

How might an understanding of conscious evolution and the African philosophy of ubuntu help nurture open dialogue, teamwork, and leadership skills within a fast-paced corporate culture?

In September, employees at the pharmaceutical giant Novartis had the chance to find out when roughly 400 team members around the globe attended online screenings of the Mind & Life film “Evolution of the Heart” as part of a weeklong celebration of World Mindfulness Day. The free, 37-minute documentary chronicles conversations between the Dalai Lama, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and social scientist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.

The film struck a resonant chord, particularly among young professionals. “The movie was one of the most powerful interventions we had—emotionally moving people with a sense of purpose,” said Stefan Gross, Novartis’ Energized for Life—Global Mindfulness Lead.

“The movie was one of the most powerful interventions we had—
emotionally moving people with a sense of purpose.”

Several years ago, Stefan got the go-ahead to begin seeding a grassroots movement among employees aimed at nurturing a mindful culture. “What fills me with pride,” he says, “is that these activities were not initiated with the ultimate goal of increasing productivity and sales, but more to help our associates develop the self-awareness and skills to regulate attention, emotions, and act with integrity in serving the greater good.”

The effort began with the introduction of an eight-week open mindfulness and stress reduction-oriented course. Among the benefits cited by participants were enhanced reporting relationships. The company now makes a free meditation app, “Awakened Mind,” available to employees and up to three family members or close friends, and offers an introductory program called “The Art of Being Present.” To continue the journey, topic-based daily mindfulness practices called “ConnectedMINDS” were developed in collaboration with an external partner. These comprise 30-minute mindfulness sessions delivered over two to four weeks. Believing that change begins with the example set by those in leadership roles, Novartis’ big goal is to incorporate mindfulness trainings focused on self-awareness within its leadership development activities, with the goal of reaching up to 20,000 staff globally.

While the message of “Evolution of the Heart” is fundamentally hopeful, the film exposes the deep shadow of humankind as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela describes the abuses and violence perpetrated under apartheid in South Africa. Pumla, who served on the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), shares how the African philosophy of ubuntu, in which “a person becomes a human being through other people,” helped create the conditions through which healing and forgiveness were possible.

For his part, David Sloan Wilson explains to the Dalai Lama the theory of conscious evolution, whereby altruism, compassion, and other positive human qualities are now believed to evolve as a product of evolution—under the right conditions.

After the screening, Novartis team members dove into questions posed in the film’s discussion guide. Of particular interest was a story David shared about a series of experiments researchers conducted to breed a new generation of chickens. In one, the researchers separated out the most productive hens; in another, they separated out the most productive cages of chickens. Which group of chickens laid the most eggs? It turns out the egg-laying in the first group declined because the most productive hen in each cage was the biggest bully.

The lesson of the chicken experiment is that cooperation benefits all members of a group. As the Dalai Lama comments in the film, “Individual survival is entirely dependent on the community, so taking care about the community is ultimately about taking care of yourself.”

For Stefan and co-lead Ana Sciaini, Regional Head of Talent Management & Organizational Development, the integration of mindfulness within Novartis’ corporate culture is, in part, about fostering an environment where speaking up and debate is actively encouraged, along with compassion and contribution to the common good. It’s all part of the company’s goal to “build a culture of inspired, curious, and unbossed people acting with integrity.”