Mindfulness and Business: A New Frontier?

HTI Logo This was originally posted on the APA Center for Organizational Excellence blog on Feb. 21, 2014. 

What do the World Economic Forum, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and the cover of Time Magazine have in common? All of them are investigating mindfulness as a way to grow and develop new human capacity.

Mindfulness has been around for 3,000 years and has been practiced within many of the world’s great spiritual traditions. More recently, it has attracted the attention of world economic leaders and high performing athletes. There is a growing awareness of the connection between mindful practices and improved performance.

The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks started the season with regular meditation sessions for all of the players. They are not the first athletes to be introduced to this approach to enhancing their performance. One of the most successful coaches in NBA history, Phil Jackson, taught similar techniques to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers World Championship teams that he led. The coaches of these teams believe that there is a connection between enhanced awareness, emotional control, and clear minds and excellence in athletic performance.

In the recent World Economic Forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, mindfulness was not only a topic of discussion but one of the topics that drew the largest number of participants. The participants included CEOs of some of the world’s most successful companies. The CEOs are looking for a way to deepen the ability of their companies to function in a complex business environment that is sustainable in the long run. Developing a more mindful business in a way that some are attempting to address these issues.

Perhaps this is just the latest fad in a never-ending quest to find the secret to success and it will take its place with encounter groups and other once popular trends.

But there is also a possibility that the development of deeper levels of awareness in a systematic format that has been shown to enhance brain function is something that business needs to notice, particularly if the goal is to have a workplace that can perform at high levels.

One goal of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program is to help employers learn about the critical components of a workplace that enhance employee well-being and the effectiveness of the organization. It has been demonstrated that these are not mutually exclusive goals but rather that, when business becomes more psychologically healthy, these goals enhance and support each other.

One way to begin the process of creating a more psychologically healthy and high-performing workplace may be to begin to systematically develop a more mindful workplace, from the leadership all the way through the entire organization.

Over the next few weeks, I will try to detail the process of becoming more mindful and enumerate the potential benefits that may await those who are willing to embark on this journey.


Applications of Psychology to the Workplace: Developing Healthy Aggression (Part 2)

By Dr. John Weaver.

In my last blog, I tried to outline what I see as the risks and the benefits of developing healthy aggression within an organization. This important and difficult task is essential for sustaining high performance.

In most organizations, the challenge of being effective comes both from employees who are too passive as well as those whose aggression does more damage than good.

The framework I use comes from an application of insights drawn from the work of Edward Deci & Richard Ryan (Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behavior, 1985). They discussed three factors in the development of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and relatedness. In my application of this work, I suggest that the accelerator for increasing aggressive action in those who are too passive comes from increasing autonomy. The brakes for those who are too aggressive are to increase the value of relatedness.

When an employee is TOO PASSIVE, it is helpful to look first to systemic factors within the organization. Managers who micro-manage are more likely to create passivity within the workforce. The micro-manager gives very specific directions to a direct report who is expected to do exactly what his or her boss demands. When that task is done, he or she will wait to be told what to do next before taking on additional work. Employees need to develop autonomy to take the initiative and aggressively pursue organizational goals. This means that the task of the manager is much more one of aligning the goals of the organization with the goals of the worker, providing him or her with the tools and skills necessary to achieve those goals and supporting him or her in the work. A great manager helps an employee to have a sense of pride in a job well done.

My father spent his career at a utility company, working his way up through the ranks and eventually having responsibility for the operations of the southern district of his organization. At his retirement party an employee who worked for him told me that my father had saved his life.

This employee was near to being fired by the company when they assigned him to work for my father. The crew on which he worked had multiple responsibilities including some very physically difficult and dirty jobs to which each member was assigned in turn. He was being placed on the difficult and dirty assignments day after day, with no rotation. After a few weeks of this, he stormed in to see my father and demanded to know what was going on. He said my father looked at him and told him that this was his last chance to make it with the company, but that meant that he had to work every job in a way that he could be proud of his accomplishments. When he showed he could do that in this difficult and dirty job, he would be given the chance to be assigned the other responsibilities, too.

My father explained to him that his job, as a supervisor, was to make sure that everyone who worked for him could be proud of the work that they did. That would be an attitude that they could take home to their family, and, if they carried that mindset over, they could also be proud of the way they treated their family, which would help them to be ready to come back to work and do work they can be proud of again the next day. This employee was feeling angry. My father understood that his job was to help the employee to align that anger with the goals of the organization in a way that he could have the aggression to tackle the difficult challenge of changing his attitude and begin to work in a way that made him feel more worthwhile. He had to move from feeling like a passive victim to an active shaper of his own life.

This employee realized that he had not been acting in a way that made him proud of anything at work or at home and that he needed to make an attitude adjustment. He became a very successful employee who was promoted, and who went on to have a successful career with the organization.

Sometimes, however, aggression becomes TOO INTENSE and needs to be brought under better control to be an effective force for the organization. While passive workers need to develop more autonomy, the overly aggressive employee needs to develop his or her relatedness skills. Aggression is brought under disciplined control when the aggressor is cognizant of his or her connection to the organization, to the other employees, to customers and to the larger society. Aggressive actions based on narrow self-interest are usually not even good, in the long run, for the individual. Humans are a social species and we need to relate to others to be healthy and successful across our lifespan.

Several years ago, I was contacted by a long-term care organization. There had been severe spring rains that resulted in local flooding and one of their facilities was flooded out, necessitating a move of all of the residents and staff to co-occupy a nearby facility with the residents and staff already there.

Under this stressful circumstance, staff members began reacting with narrow self-interest and aggression toward each other. This was having an impact on the quality of care for the residents of the two facilities. It was not possible to change the circumstances until the floodwaters receded and the damaged facility underwent extensive cleaning and repair.

As I listened to staff members describe the stress they were enduring and heard the anger they had toward other staff, I was aware that this conflict was arising from the staff member feeling trapped and trying to do something to protect himself or herself. So I asked each person to tell me why he or she chose to do this work.

People who work in long-term care don’t get paid much. They don’t get a lot of respect, even from other health care professionals. It is difficult to provide care, around the clock for residents who are unable to care for themselves. Those who choose to do this work want to be part of something larger than themselves. They are willing to do difficult work because of the connections they feel with the residents and to the mission of the organization.

As each staff member reminded himself or herself of the reasons for doing this work, their anger toward the other staff members visibly decreased. (I didn’t have enough Kleenex in the office for the amount of tears shed as employees talked about their commitment to this work.) They were rapidly able to channel the aggression away from their fellow workers and toward a common goal of restoring the facility that had been damaged as rapidly as possible. It was remarkable to see what the combined staff was able to do once they were able to use the aggression to tackle the problem rather than to be angry at each other.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Keeping in a healthy zone, where aggression is experienced but does not become overwhelming, takes mental training. Military and law enforcement personnel undergo intense training to maintain optimal levels of aggression in very difficult circumstances. Top athletes are beginning to receive training in this skill, also. It is a skill that is equally important for any organization pursuing excellent and sustainable performance.

It may be helpful for organizations, and particularly leaders within these organizations to establish regular and rigorous mental training to work effectively with maintaining the optimal zone for aggressive action. This training involves increasing self-awareness and relational attunement. It requires developing skill in emotional regulation. Regular debriefing and reflection is essential on an ongoing basis. Your organization might consider finding a qualified psychologist who can help you make this quality more effective as a dimension of your success.

Applications of Psychology to the Workplace: Developing Healthy Aggression (Part 1)

By Dr. John Weaver.

Early in my consulting career, the first organizations that hired me wanted help with conflict resolution. Aggressive impulses had gotten out of control and were damaging them. As a result of working with these companies, I became acutely aware of the need to develop cooperation and collaboration as a counter balance to the unchecked anger and subsequent destructive actions that accompanied this emotion. But there is more to the story than just working on control of aggressive impulses in the workforce.

Like many complex psychological processes, there is a range of aggression that is helpful, and too much or too little can be problematic. Finding this beneficial range is a combination of internal factors unique to each individual and to external factors that change with the organizational environment. If you are working with a psychologist to coach you to be effective with aggression, it will be necessary to look at both of these contexts.

The RISKS of aggression: These are not difficult to identify. Too much aggressive behavior can leave a wake of destruction in the workplace. In addition to the kind of non-productive conflict that cause organizations to find a psychologist to help the with conflict resolution, instances of workplace bullying (see David Yamada’s: Minding the Workplace blog), cheating, lying (see Dan Ariely’s: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty), and many other forms of incivility are examples of aggressive behavior that are damaging to the organization. This can be just one of the many reasons some employees do not trust their employers (see the recent APA Stress Survey Results). Overly aggressive practices may result in customers becoming disillusioned with an organization and its brand. And once trust is lost, it may be extremely difficult to get it back. Aggressive individuals can become so focused on self-serving goals that they act as if they have no regard for the impact their aggression has on the organization, on customers, or on other employees. In fact, when aggression is out of control the only goal may be to “win” at all costs, and even personal goals can be lost in the rush of emotion.

The REWARDS of aggression: All of this is true, but aggressiveness is also a highly valued character trait in business settings. Aggressiveness is assessed during pre-employment psychological assessments. Individuals are hired and promoted on the basis of their ability to aggressively address situations. Talented individuals who lack this drive may be left behind. In a recent biography written by Brent Schlender, Becoming Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook says that Steve Jobs was right to yell at him the four or five times it occurred. (Of course this doesn’t mean that it is always acceptable.)

Aggression inclines a person toward action. It is a fundamental dimension of the drive that is necessary to become good at something, to continue to improve, and eventually to become great at it.

Perhaps this is why the top performers in organizations often possess high levels of of aggression. And maybe this is why some of them are such difficult people to get along with! There is a “relentlessness” to this quality. The aggressive individual is willing to take risks to achieve a goal that less aggressive people are unwilling to take. He or she meets obstacles and willingly expends extra energy to overcome them. He or she sees setbacks as sources of new learning rather than defeats. These are critical qualities for organizational success.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) uses the term “grit” in her research in educational settings, and notes that it is even more highly correlated with academic success than IQ scores. There have been fewer studies in the business world but it is likely that it is equally true that IQ is important for success but the willingness to aggressively and persistently pursue a goal is even more important.

When a person is aggressive at mild to moderate levels of intensity, he or she is also more inclined to pay close attention to details. While we would all like to be happy all the time, when we are happiest we are less likely to pay attention to details, according to research done by Forgas & Koch, found in the Handbook of Emotion and Cognition. (Those who are overwhelmed by their aggression are not able to attend to details either, as the emotion becomes too intense and begins to interfere with rational thought.)

I have come to believe that aggression – with appropriate awareness and control – is an important factor in the development of excellence. Like many psychological dimensions of organizational success, aggression can be wielded in a manner that is destructive and unhealthy but it can also be so feared that it results in an organization that is weak and unable to survive. It is finding the right proportion of aggressive action, in the right mix, in the right time that leads to high performance.

The challenge for a high performing organization, and for individuals in pursuit of excellence, is to find the optimal zone where aggression brings a multitude of benefits without becoming an overwhelming force that results in the destructive elements of this quality becoming predominant.

In my next blog, I will try to outline some of the actions that an organization needs to take to find the optimal zone for their workforce.

Thoughts about Some Psychological Dimensions of Work

By Dr. John Weaver    

    This was originally published on the Good Company Blog, a publication of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence.

This blog article is my attempt to think through some concepts in an informal way. The thoughts I am writing do not represent a final, carefully reasoned argument but a beginning point meant to elicit some dialogue that will yield a deeper discussion of the psychological dimensions of organizational functioning in the workplace.

I have been thinking about some of the processes involved in psychological functioning that supports effective work. It is easy to assume that “psychologically healthy” (the designation used for the Psychologically Health Workplace Program) equals the absence of diagnosable psychiatric disorders. It makes sense to pay attention to this because the psychiatric diagnosis of depression is the most expensive medical cost to business, by a substantial margin. Treatment costs, missed work days, and loss of productivity when someone who has a diagnosis of depression is unable to fully engage in his or her job duties is very pricey. But I think that the psychological actions that promote high performance involve much more than this. From my perspective, effective psychological factors within the workforce involve healthy emotional functioning, cognitive clarity, effective motivation, and ethical action. (Do you have any other additions to this list?) Let me explore what each of these concepts means to me.

Healthy Emotional Functioning: This is a more complicated dimension than it might seem. Healthy emotional functioning includes the full range of human emotion, including pleasant emotions like happiness, joy and enthusiasm, as well as uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety, and anger.

Two things characterize healthy emotional functioning. First, healthy emotions arise as an appropriate response to the context. Happiness is an appropriate emotional response to succeeding in something, but not to a loss of significant revenue. Anger might arise if the organization is being threatened because an employee has failed to do his or her job. But when emotions are present which don’t match the context or the reality of the situation, there is something unhealthy going on. For example, if a workplace is plagued by anxiety even though the business has a long history of being very profitable, there is likely to be something wrong that needs to be addressed.

Second, healthy emotions are transient. Healthy emotions are flexible. An emotionally healthy worker may be angry about the failure of a work process, leading to a revision of the process or holding another employee accountable for his or her actions, but the anger dissipates as the problem is resolved. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, titled Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem, Jordi Quidbach, and his colleagues noted that, in their study of 37,000 subjects, those who had an experience of more varied emotions were both physically and emotionally healthier.

Healthy emotions provide a competitive advantage for an organization. Essentially, emotions function as a feedback system for human beings. Anger arises when there is a perception of threat. Anxiety functions to alert the individual to be cautious and check for accuracy. Enthusiasm promotes energy for a task. This is a dimension that humans bring to the workplace that machines do not provide. Different personalities bring differing emotional tones to the workplace. It can be messy. And the other dimensions of psychological health I mentioned above are needed to provide balance and increase its value within the workplace. But healthy, variable, and flexible emotions are a dynamic source of energy for the workplace.

Cognitive Clarity: The workplace has evolved to place the quality of cognitive clarity at the forefront of marketplace success in the 21st Century. There is a need for complex technological expertise, clear thinking and good decision making. The amount of data that is available today has the paradoxical effect of threatening clear thinking. In the face of information overload, some become paralyzed by analysis, while others cherry pick information to match their preconceived beliefs. In organizations that are psychologically healthy, there is an awareness of the threats to clear thinking, and the cognitive discipline for making effective decisions.

Threats to clear thinking arise in the face of intense emotion. Even when that emotion is a healthy and adaptive response that is appropriate to context, it will alter cognition. For example, happiness has the effect of broadening thinking (see Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage) This is important in creativity but can require some extra effort if the organization needs a narrow and clear focus to complete a task. Anger can result in the creation of a “hostile intent” story that identifies someone as an enemy who is purposefully attempting to hurt me (See Janis Cannon-Bowers and Eduardo Salas’ book, Making Decisions Under Stress). This story may or may not be accurate, but is a part of the thought patterns that arise when anyone is angry.

Awareness of the impact of emotion on cognition is essential to provide stable responses within an organization. It is also true that thoughts can quiet or even change emotions. Taking time to ascertain whether the “hostile intent” story that arises, associated with feeling angry, can provide a correction to the emotional response that quiets the anger if the facts reveal that there is no enemy or attempt to harm. Healthy cognitions promote a clearer picture of reality.

A second dimension of the importance of effective cognition is found in the process of decision-making. Behavioral economics alerts organizations to common mistakes that humans make when analyzing data and making choices Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems for decision making in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. These systems differ greatly, one being more intuitive and fast, and the other being more thoughtful and slow, and through this difference provide flexibility in the way we make choices. When we better understand these systems we can make decisions much more effectively because we are more likely to use the right process for the right problem we are trying to solve. This cognitive clarity promotes organizational success.

Effective Motivation: Motivating human beings are one of the most essential tasks of an organization. It can also be one of the most mysterious endeavors. If motivation were the simple, straightforward task as it is often conceptualized, it would be a matter of setting priorities for what is most important in the organization and giving the highest monetary reward for that, and tapering the reward down to the least important priority. If you needed someone to work harder, you simply give him or her more money. But things are not that simple.

Many things can affect motivation. Some of those are internal factors like a person’s values, preferences, or even physiological factors like hunger, fatigue, etc. Motivation is also influenced by external factors, like money and recognition from others, among many other things. And these factors are changeable. A value may be a strong dimension of motivation in one context and have less influence in another.

A psychologically healthy workplace is a dynamic environment. In an organization in which the entire workforce is engaged with one another, managers and employees, there is an ability to balance the need for just and fair compensation, for finding opportunities for workers to use their talents and make a contribution, and for working to solve the inevitable problems that arise that are de-motivating.

Because of its complexity, the effort to support the best that each person has to bring to the workplace is an ongoing endeavor. Fortunately, this is an area where making an honest effort to do things right has a major positive impact. It is impossible to make the perfect choices at all times for all individuals within an organization (and even more difficult if the scope is broadened to include customers). But making progress on creating an environment where each contribution is valued is important. In fact, feeling valued at work is one of the hallmarks of companies that have been identified as psychologically healthy workplaces.

Ethical Action: It may be a surprise to consider ethics to be a part of the psychologically healthy workplace, but I believe it is an important element, because it highlights the way these effective workplaces treat employees and customers. One of the problems that organizations face is that it is valuable to have aggressive behavior in order to be successful. But that aggression can spin out of control and cause damage within the organization or between the organization and potential customers. The resulting damage often has more than momentary impacts and can reduce the effectiveness of the organization for a long time.

Alternatively, it is common that some members of a workforce will expend minimal effort to stay employed. This can also have a significant negative impact on an organization. It is a breach of ethical responsibility to others in the organization to harm others by not putting in the effort expected within the contract for employment.

Ethics are codes of behavior that attempt to put reasonable controls in place to identify what actions are acceptable within the organization and which behaviors are unacceptable.

“Ethics” is primarily a way of recognizing that there is an obligation to others that guides behavior, beyond the pursuit of personal gain. When a team thinks and acts ethically, it is more likely that everyone will benefit because there is an advantage when humans work together to accomplish tasks that are beyond the reach of any individual effort. For that cooperation to be achieved, it is likely that there will be times when some individuals must sacrifice immediate gain for the benefit of all. Formalizing the decision-making about this results in a code of ethics.

This dimension of the workplace is rarely discussed. Sometimes I have heard well meaning and intelligent people articulate – what I think is a naive belief – in which the competing forces of the marketplace will somehow automatically result in an acceptable cooperative environment. While it may be that, through trial and error, the pursuit of personal gain in an unfettered marketplace will eventually be tempered to include obligations to others, the failure to act with responsibility toward others can have serious and lasting impacts on co-workers and customers that may result in a loss of trust. Ethical systems provide guides to behavior so that we can learn from the mistakes others have made and create more successful organizations based on that knowledge, avoiding the long term damage that comes from self-interested behavior that damaged others when it occurred and damaged future relationships. Throughout human history, there have been some who reflect on and set expectations for ethical action to promote thinking that fosters the long-term responsibilities of action that foster a better society.

Getting all of these aspects of an organization pursuing psychological excellence for all employees to work together is challenging. It can be a time consuming endeavor and it must be ongoing if it is to be successful. But in the effort to craft the most successful and sustainable organization, effective psychological functioning is an essential component of success.

In a psychologically high performing workplace, these elements I have discussed contribute to increased employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth & development, health & safety, and recognition; the components used to measure an organization for a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award.

I hope these ideas will give the reader a chance to pause and wonder what might be possible. I am certain that there are other thoughts and ideas that might be useful critiques or additions to mine, so I look forward to reading your reactions. I do not think I have the last word on this, and I am interested in your thoughts too. Please add your comments!