A management tool that can heighten employees' focus, and that can help them manage stress and work better together might sound like a pipe dream.
But actually there's a millennia-old practice that many believe can achieve this. Although already widely used outside the workplace, meditation, according to some recent research, may be a management tool worth looking into.
Workers demonstrating mindfulness (a mental state characterized by a focus on the present, and one of the main traits meditation increases) were found to get along with co-workers and manage others better, and were also more ethical and more likely to follow safety procedures.
And these were just among a number of benefits identified in an extensive review of research published in 2016 in the Journal of Management. In a range of settings from restaurants to health care, research found mindful workers showed better job performance and were happier in their work.
—Christopher Lyddy, assistant professor, Providence College
“People who are more mindful tend to be more present, less in the past and future," according to Darren Good, associate professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and lead author of the 2016 study.
“They tend to be happier," he continues. "And they can regulate their emotions better when things go wrong because they anchor in their ongoing experience instead of rehashing what happened or projecting what else may go wrong."
Mindfulness and Meditation Tools and Techniques
The concept of mindfulness came from Buddhism and the practice of meditation within that religious tradition.
In the last few decades, meditation and mindfulness have been adapted by Western proponents into a secular version that retains many of the original aspects but without the religious qualities. Researchers study this secular Western version to find business applications.
For businesses to benefit from mindfulness, employees don't need to meditate hours a day for decades. By focusing on breathing for 8-15 minutes before important negotiations, meetings with difficult people or other challenging tasks, meditation can help people feel and perform better. That's according to an article published in 2017 in Journal of Business Research by Andrew Hafenbrack, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics in Lisbon, Portugal.
“Even providing meditation recordings that employees can listen to at their desks can cheaply and effectively allow interested employees to enter a psychological state of mindfulness in as little as eight minutes," Hafenbrack says.
While some organizations hire trainers to instruct workers in meditation and mindfulness, and others have gone so far as to install designated meditation rooms in offices, inexpensive smartphone apps and recordings can accomplish similar effects, experts say.
One of the most effective and least costly approaches may be for managers to simply encourage mindfulness and make sure employees know it's okay to take time to meditate.
“You want to build a culture that's accepting and supportive of the practice by giving people the necessary time, space and privacy," Good says.
Boundaries of Meditation's Benefits
As useful as they appear, mindfulness and meditation do have limits and some potential downsides.
Some limitations may be due to the way mindfulness encourages a focus on the present moment rather than on the past and future.
“There is debate about the effects of mindfulness on performance—perhaps good when there is a need for a specific task or for safety, perhaps not so good when looking ahead and behind broadly to determine where an organization should go," says Joyce Bono, a management professor in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida who was part of the research team for the aforementioned 2016 study.
Another concern is whether, due to the Buddhist background of meditation and mindfulness, the practices may be perceived in some workplaces as perhaps in conflict with employees' religious or spiritual beliefs.
Bono suggests addressing these concerns by making it clear meditation and mindfulness are optional.
“It should be offered and supported but not forced," she says.
Bono adds that many of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, such as reduced stress, can be achieved with other management practices, including not having employees on call 24-7, offering work breaks and even viewing art.
“So far I see no reason to believe that mindfulness practices including meditation are superior to other effective practices," Bono says.
However Good says that mindfulness is notable for the way it can affect many aspects of work life.
“Mindfulness is a root construct," he says. “It touches on everything. It's too much to call it a silver bullet. We're still too early in the process of discovery. But it's something that has real impact across a range of human functioning."
“Mindfulness helps people think, feel and act better at work," sums up Christopher Lyddy, assistant professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and another author of the 2016 study.
“It is easy to enhance mindfulness through common practices like meditation or yoga," he adds. "Given [that] we currently know of no clear downsides to mindfulness, it seems to me like a great thing to encourage in an organization."
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