Mindfulness has moved from a largely obscure practice to a mainstream organisational idea in some leading organisations. This purposeful, flexible, and open state of attention and awareness of the present moment has become a significant talking point. The reason? Mindfulness is linked to higher level functioning and people’s increased ability to focus their attention in a dynamic, task-focused way. Its advocates are convinced that it increases performance and it is this link to performance that will be explored.
What makes mindfulness particularly relevant for work places interested is that it can be trained through mindfulness meditation practice. It is not a genetic trait that some have and others don’t, and instead there is increasing evidence that even brief mindfulness training helps people improve their memory and cognitive ability.
Researchers are still working on establishing a solid empirical link between mindfulness and organisational performance, but leaders in top organisations such as Google and Apple have begun implementing mindfulness initiatives for their employees.
What is mindfulness about?
Mindfulness is about paying attention with a particular intention: this intention is based on your willingness to give up pre-judgement and certainty, and to bring into your experience of the present moment:
- A deep curiosity to discover something new,
- An openness to notice things about the situation, including negative or unpleasant ones, and
- The flexibility to accept change in the environment or within yourself, rather than resist it.
How do you become mindful?
Everyone can practise mindfulness. There are a few things that enable you to become mindful, such as:
- Slow down.
- Notice five things about you, or about the situation, good or bad.
- Ask yourself: What can I learn about the situation?
- Only then take action.
This approach is an antidote to overly complex and dynamic environments – it helps people stay present and therefore choose more effective action.
Mindfulness vs. positive thinking
The crucial component in developing mindfulness consists of becoming aware of the entire range of thoughts and feelings within you, as you evaluate what is happening in the situation. Counter intuitively, mindfulness enables positive changes in performance not by focusing on the positive, or on those aspects of a situation that you like or appreciate, but by becoming ever more able to welcome into your experience all thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative.
This is particularly hard during stressful situations. Most people don’t like feeling stressed, and instead avoid the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that are inevitably part of experiencing stress. This can take inconspicuous forms, for instance, by reacting to an unwelcome voicemail by checking email, or by eating a packet of crisps. The problem: by shutting out of our experience those thoughts or feelings that we deem ‘negative’, we shut ourselves off from noticing aspects about such an unwelcome message that are potentially useful, for example, the tone of voice with which the caller conveyed the message. Noticing whether the caller sounded frustrated or disappointed may help us respond more appropriately, and put to good use the information conveyed through the caller’s tone of voice.
Practising mindfulness at the individual level is hence akin to developing a mental muscle; more specifically, it is about practising the capacity to become aware, and subsequently use, all information available to you, especially information you would have otherwise shied away from. This is where the power of mindfulness lies: rather than focusing on positive thinking at the expense of noticing what it is that may make you experience stress (and the associated tunnel vision or defensiveness), mindfulness enables you to choose the most effective action in the moment, based on a careful evaluation of all intelligence available to you in the situation.
Organisational influences on mindfulness
A question asked less often is: How is an employee’s personal mindfulness practice affected by organisational circumstances?
This is pertinent to organisational decision-makers because – as ever-keen students of organisational performance, we know that many situational factors influence employee performance (competing demands, job fit between a person’s skills and motivation and the task at hand etc.).
It is an important question to ponder before going ahead and bringing mindfulness into an organisation also because we understand that mindfulness is more beneficial for task performance when the work environment is complex and dynamic (as opposed to an environment where routine jobs need to be performed on a daily basis).
A research study presented at the Academy of Management’s annual conference in Orlando in2013, carried out by Jochen Reb and colleagues at Singapore Management University, dealt with precisely this question: how do organisational factors impact employee mindfulness?
Jochen Reb and his colleagues have carried out a research programme that examines what aspects of mindfulness drive employee performance. In an earlier study, Reb and colleagues found that an organisational leader’s mindfulness affects employee performance because the leader’s mindfulness helps foster employees’ psychological need satisfaction (in other words, their autonomy at work, their perceptions of competence, and the relationship quality with others at work).
In the study examining the effect of organisational factors on employee mindfulness, (which is forthcoming in the journal Mindfulness), Reb et al discovered that several organisational factors strongly affect the employees’ mindfulness: constraints such as poor equipment, conflicting demands, the employee’s autonomy, and also people factors such as supervisor support. Reb and his colleagues go on to demonstrate that the employees’ mindfulness, as measured by their awareness and attention at work, strongly affect their well-being and their performance at work.
Implications for raising performance using mindfulness
What does this mean for people pondering to raise performance through mindfulness training in work settings? Rather than focusing exclusively on helping individual employees to practise mindfulness, we can also make organisations more mindful by (mindfully!) examining contextual factors at work that facilitate or hamper a mindful task focus amongst workers.
It is early days in understanding how organisations can benefit. More work is needed to understand the organisational constraints affecting mindfulness and its link with performance. We need to widen our lens in this field and shift our focus away from zooming exclusively in on the individual and her cultivation of mindfulness, and towards helping leaders in organisations support their employees more effectively (through mindfulness-based approaches and others) and/or removing situational constraints that make it difficult to practice mindfulness as much as possible. In this way we have a better chance of successfully bringing mindfulness into our organisations.
This article was republished from Dr. Jutta Tobias at Think: Cranfield
Dr Jutta Tobias is a lecturer at Cranfield’s Centre for Business Performance. She has a broad interest in behaviour change to help improve people’s performance at work
Cranfield’s Praxis Centre offers a 2 day mindfulness open programme, The Mindful Executive: cognitive decision making for the wise leader and a mindfulness practice is taught on their Fearless Leadership programme.
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