The Mindful Workplace: Lessons to Be Learned

This article was first published on March 24, 2104 for the APA Center for Organizational Excellence blog. Human behavior in organizations holds both the highest potential and the greatest risks for the success of the business. There is incredible potential for collaborative action to build and create and improve the quality of life. There is, unfortunately, a dark side to this, too. Humans have the capacity to resist and even actively oppose the systems and processes in place at a business.

Working with the human dimension of business is one of the keys to success. In a similar way that businesses need clear financial direction and must comply with legal and regulatory requirements, it is essential to maximize the human benefits of the workforce in a sustainable way. This is more than minimizing the impact of depression or stopping bad workplace behaviors like bullying. These are important dimensions of successful work, but there is much more to high performance than the elimination of problems. Creating a mindful workplace fosters the development of qualities that help excellence to emerge.

Breaking through barriers: Buddhist monks, in their training, are sent out to spend a February night in the Himalayan mountains with nothing to keep them warm except a damp sheet, and their ability to mindfully maintain their body heat. This is an exercise that I have no desire to imitate (although I live in Wisconsin, so I could have used this skill a few times during this winter), but it is a reminder that the human mind is capable of breaking through barriers that seem to be insurmountable.

There are many, smaller ways that being mindful does allow individuals to extend themselves beyond their apparent limits. One woman completely reversed a six-month pattern of being late for work. Another man was able to overcome his anxiety and effectively train new hires in complicated job procedures–an accomplishment that ultimately helped him get a promotion. Yet another manager began to have the most productive and interactive meetings he had ever had.

These are not isolated examples but common outcomes for those I have worked with to develop their mindfulness skills. Their worksites benefited as much as they did from these changes.

Increased awareness of the positive: Positive psychologists, like Shawn Achor and Barbara Fredrickson have demonstrated significant performance increases associated with happiness at work in their research. But it turns out that knowing this often has a limited impact in the workplace because it is more difficult to notice positive events than negative events. In fact, noticing what is positive seems to require conscious awareness. Mindful practices develop this ability to become more aware of the positive. As a result, there is strong research evidence that mindfulness develops the part of the brain that is associated with happiness.

In the business world, happiness is associated with significantly higher levels of creativity, with better problem-solving skills and more effective relationships. These are important qualities to foster in a high-performing company.

Handling disruptions: Today’s work environment is full of disruptions. Some of this is because businesses are asking more from each employee in a lean workforce. Some of this is due to the electronically connected environment with instant communication demands and access to social media. It also arises when a worker is anxious about potential negative reactions. And, of course, there are the unexpected events that occur.

It is not the circumstances of life, however, that are the problem. It is our reaction to those circumstances that define us. Disruptions happen every day. They happen to every person. Developing the ability to pause and choose a response to those circumstances, rather than to give in to the first reaction, can dramatically change the impact of a disruptive event. Think about a person you consider to be “heroic.” Is your admiration of that individual due to the fact that he or she never had difficult circumstances to handle, or is he or she demonstrating “heroism” because of his or her ability to choose a response that overcame the challenges?

The skill of mindfulness creates a pause in the cycle of reactivity and makes space for a thoughtful response to emerge. Imagine an organization that was able to follow through on its intentions, even in a world where there are so many things that compete for attention.

Developing wisdom: Many skills that are developed in mindfulness training have an immediate impact on the flow of day-to-day work. There is another area of growth that occurs in a longer time span among those who are regularly practicing mindfulness. It is the development of wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to know how things fit within a bigger picture. The practice of mindfulness includes learning to take a mental step back from a situation and look at the context in which it occurs. It promotes seeing and acting in a way that is appropriate to the larger whole.

A high-performing company cannot depend only on a management team that exercises top-down control to accomplish organizational goals. A high-performing company needs workers who are able to see the big picture and understand how to integrate their action into the whole. This is what a mindful workplace promotes.

These are some of the qualities that are promoted in a mindful approach to business. There are specific skills that employees bring to the tasks of the business. These mindful qualities are characteristics that, when shared across the workforce, provide a foundation the brings out the best in each employee.

In my final article, I will discuss the process that companies are using to create a more mindful workplace for their employees.

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