Mindfulness, a purposeful, flexible, and open state of attention and awareness of the present moment, has received a great deal of publicity lately. The reason:

Mindfulness is linked to higher level functioning and people’s increased ability to focus their attention in a dynamic, task-focused way. This, in turn, is deemed to increase performance.

What makes mindfulness particularly relevant for work places interested in raising their workers’ ability to cultivate this open and receptive frame of mind is that mindfulness 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 trainings help people improve their memory and cognitive ability.*

While researchers are still working on establishing a solid empirical link between mindfulness and organisational performance, leaders in top organisations such as Google and Apple have begun implementing mindfulness initiatives for their employees.

A question asked less often: 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 earlier this week, 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 carved 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 the following:

Several organisational factors – constraints such as poor equipment, conflicting demands, the employee’s autonomy, and also people factors such as supervisor support – strongly affect the employees’ mindfulness.

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.

What does this mean for people pondering to raise performance through mindfulness trainings in work settings?

Rather than focusing exclusively on helping individual employees practice 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.

By shifting our focus from zooming in on the individual and her cultivation of mindfulness and helping supervisors support their employees most effectively and/or removing situational constraints that make it difficult to practice mindfulness as much as possible, we have a better chance to overdetermine the success of bringing mindfulness into our organisations.

A goal worth pursuing. What do you think?

Jutta Tobias

* Do let me know if you’d like to find out more about the research studies that have demonstrated these effects.

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